Healing of a painful intervertebral disc should not be confused with reversing disc degeneration: Implications for physical therapies for discogenic back pain

Michael A. Adams, Manos Stefanakis, Patricia Dolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

57 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Background: Much is known about intervertebral disc degeneration, but little effort has been made to relate this information to the clinical problem of discogenic back pain, and how it might be treated. Methods: We re-interpret the scientific literature in order to provide a rationale for physical therapy treatments for discogenic back pain. Interpretation: Intervertebral discs deteriorate over many years, from the nucleus outwards, to an extent that is influenced by genetic inheritance and metabolite transport. Age-related deterioration can be accelerated by physical disruption, which leads to disc "degeneration" or prolapse. Degeneration most often affects the lower lumbar discs, which are loaded most severely, and it is often painful because nerves in the peripheral anulus or vertebral endplate can be sensitised by inflammatory-like changes arising from contact with blood or displaced nucleus pulposus. Surgically-removed human discs show an active inflammatory process proceeding from the outside-in, and animal studies confirm that effective healing occurs only in the outer anulus and endplate, where cell density and metabolite transport are greatest. Healing of the disc periphery has the potential to relieve discogenic pain, by re-establishing a physical barrier between nucleus pulposus and nerves, and reducing inflammation. Conclusion: Physical therapies should aim to promote healing in the disc periphery, by stimulating cells, boosting metabolite transport, and preventing adhesions and re-injury. Such an approach has the potential to accelerate pain relief in the disc periphery, even if it fails to reverse age-related degenerative changes in the nucleus.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)961-971
Number of pages11
JournalClinical Biomechanics
Volume25
Issue number10
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2010

Keywords

  • Degeneration
  • Healing
  • Intervertebral disc
  • Pain
  • Review
  • Therapy

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