Chronic low back pain (CLBP) of a minimum three months duration is the second leading cause of disability worldwide; as such it represents a major welfare and economic problem. In the last 10 years, the incidence of CLBP has increased by more than 100% and continues to increase dramatically in the aging population. It is responsible for more global disability than any other health condition. So, whether you are processing worker’s compensation or personal injury claims, low back pain is a condition to be reckoned with.
A back injury in an already degenerating spine can create CLBP. How? Healthy disks have a gel-like substance inside of them that acts as a “shock-absorber,” but as disks degenerate, they shrink, making them less able to buffer against motion. As disks collapse, they begin to compress the spinal nerves that run through them. Additionally, when gel leaks out of a disk (herniation), it results in bulges that can compress nerves or the spinal cord itself.
Recent research has shown that people with disk degeneration have lower levels of a protein called SPARC (secreted protein acidic and cysteine rich). This protein regulates cell growth and binds calcium, and is responsible for several biological processes, namely bone development. It is believed that less SPARC results in accelerated rates of disk degeneration along with low back pain and radiating leg pain. Mice lacking SPARC had an increased number of nerve fibers that were supplying disks and areas around disks which could explain how disk degeneration causes back pain. Degenerating disks have been found to have high levels of NGF (nerve growth factor), which attracts pain-sensing fibers to the area, which increases the subject’s sensation of pain.
But, the most troubling discovery is that over time, chronic low back pain leads to changes in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) of the brain. This area of the brain is involved in higher order processes such as conscious decision making, reasoning, working memory, inhibition, as well as outcome prediction.
The good news is that recent test subjects who positively responded to treatment had a reversal of changes to the brain. Research is continuously providing new information concerning chronic low back pain. In fact, there are drug therapies designed to block NGF that are currently in clinical trials, and if proven successful will be a brand new way of treating pain not only for the back but other areas of the body as well.
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