Research Reveals Inner Working of Spinal Discs

How many times have you had to skip an event — or grit your teeth and make it through an event — as a result of the pain from a slipped or herniated disc? Though the lucky few who haven’t experienced back pain have no comprehension of how debilitating the symptoms can be, the 80% of the American public that experiences low back pain at some point in their lives knows all too well what it feels like … and when one tells another that they’re suffering from disc problems, that’s all that needs to be said to evoke sincere empathy and wishes for a quick recovery.

Unfortunately, despite the ubiquitous nature of back pain, many people still struggle with it. But now researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have made what appears to be a groundbreaking discovery: they believe that they’ve found a way to delay the natural progression that takes place within spinal discs after an injury. If their theory is proven, it will represent a sea change in the way that physicians address patients who come to them complaining of pain.

According to the physician at the University of Pennsylvania, spinal discs contain cells in their outer regions that have a negative impact on the discs ability to heal when injuries occur. Though most of the attention in spinal disc injury tends to be on the soft interior of the structure, the new revelations indicate that when cells in the outer region of the discs are damaged, their healing process leads to an inflammatory response that actually slows overall healing down.

The good news is that this inflammatory response can be addressed through drugs, allowing the natural healing process to take place.

Though the initial studies summarized in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering were done using laboratory animals, the scientists involved were extremely optimistic about its long-term promise. According to postdoctoral fellow Edward Bonnevie of Penn Medicine’s McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, “This work sheds light on some of the challenges we are going to face in slowing disc degeneration and preventing back pain. Most spine research focuses on the inner part of the disc, but our work highlights the fact that we need to treat the whole disc, and we believe doing so may lead to the identification of new targets for therapy.”

In explaining their discovery, the researchers described the spine’s discs as being similar to water balloons, equating the balloon’s water to the water-attracting proteins in the inside of the discs and the balloons exterior to the cells’ outer layer of fibrous tissue, which is constantly being subjected to a certain level of pressure and stretch. The discs’ purpose is to provide cushioning for the vertebrae which are essentially stacked upon one another in the spine: failing that process, the discs come into contact with each other and nearby nerves, creating a pain response.

In analyzing the effect that the outer region of the discs has on this process, Dr. Bonnevie said, “We know that cells in the inner region undergo changes as a result of disc injury and degeneration, and researchers have tried to restore function to those cells. But you can think of that like trying to fill up a water balloon that already has holes—it isn’t a viable treatment option by itself.”

As researchers pursue exciting new approaches to back pain, our minimally invasive spine surgery practice offers tried and true procedures that offer relief for the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Contact us today to set up an appointment to diagnose your problem and create an effective treatment plan.

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