Are ‘swiss cheese bones’ behind your low back pain?

The first time I threw my low back out I was 25. It was New Year’s Eve, and I slipped on a patch of ice. I didn’t feel anything at first, so I went to a New Year’s Eve party and danced like crazy all night long. The next morning, I couldn’t stand up straight due to the low back pain. I was couch-bound for a couple of days, but eventually, it got better.

The thing is, ever since then, my low back goes out every now and again. I’ll feel a sudden ache when I bend over to pick something up or when I’m in the middle of a yoga posture or when I’m sitting at my computer. Sometimes, I wonder whether that fall (followed by my serious dance moves) caused some damage. But then I remember this…

About 80 percent of people deal with low back pain in their lives, and most of the time, it’s not caused by a strain or injury. If I look around me, I can vouch for this stat — I’ve seen countless family members and friends throw their back out… and the majority of them don’t have a clear reason for it.

It’s kind of frustrating that we’re all at the mercy of our finicky backs. Who knows when the next back attack will strike? Or how bad it will be.

But luckily, researchers may be one step closer to figuring out why low back pain strikes so many of us…

Why hole-y bones cause back pain

A new study from researchers at John Hopkins Medicine may have finally figured out what’s behind many people’s low back pain — swiss cheese bones.

I know “swiss cheese bones” sounds strange, so let me explain…

Researchers analyzed the bones of old mice. These mice were over 20 months old, which is like 70 to 80 years old in human years.

They found that the soft cartilage around the mice’s spines had spread out and become hard. It was also full of holes, like swiss cheese.

Now, in previous studies, these researchers discovered that aging or spine instability caused by degeneration can cause the cartilage to turn into porous bony structures.

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Since these bony structures are porous, nerves are able to penetrate them. These nerves merging with bones could be what’s causing a lot of people’s back pain.

“Cartilage does not typically have nerve and blood vessels. However, when cartilage becomes a porous bony structure with the growth of nerve fibers, it could be the source of back pain,” says study author Xu Cao, Ph.D.

3 ways to relieve low back pain right away

It’s hard to say whether “swiss cheese bones” are behind your low back pain for sure or not. But it’s an interesting theory. We’ll have to wait and see whether researchers come to the same conclusions in humans as they did in mice. Then maybe years from now, you’ll come home with a diagnosis of “swiss cheese bones” from your doctor.

But honestly, who wants to suffer in low back pain agony while researchers and doctors figure this out?

If you’re ready for low back pain relief right now, here are a few things you can do:

  • Try acupuncture or acupressure. Several comprehensive research reviews of randomized clinical trials show acupuncture can improve low back pain and increase mobility. But acupuncture is expensive. If you’re looking for an affordable alternative, you (or someone you love) can do acupressure on your lower back in the comfort of your own home.
  • Practice yoga. Research shows yoga can alleviate chronic low back pain, improve mobility and reduce the need for pain medication. But be warned, I’ve thrown my back out a couple of times doing yoga. So, if you’re dealing with back problems, it’s best to find a small yoga class where a teacher can guide you and make sure you don’t hurt yourself.
  • Pay attention to body position and posture. Do you lift a lot at work? As you know, poor lifting habits can contribute to back pain. Do you sit at a desk all day? Sitting at a desk with poor posture can harm your back too. Pay close attention to your body position and posture habits throughout the day. Many of these could be at the root of your low back pain. If you do lift a lot, make sure to crouch by bending your knees and keep your low back erect. When you sit at a desk, keep your body weight aligned directly above your low back — not in front of it or behind it. Your spinal column should form a straight line from head to tailbone.

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  1. ‘Swiss cheese’ bones could be cause of unexplained low back pain — MedicalXpress
  2. Sensory innervation in porous endplates by Netrin-1 from osteoclasts mediates PGE2-induced spinal hypersensitivity in miceNature Communications
  3. Put your back pain behind you — Easy Health Options
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and