Modic changes, possible causes and relation to low back pain

Med Hypotheses. 2008;70(2):361-8. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2007.05.014. Epub 2007 Jul 10.


In patients with low back pain (LBP) it is only possible to diagnose a small proportion, (approximately 20%), on a patho-anatomical basis. Therefore, the identification of relevant LBP subgroups, preferably on a patho-anatomical basis, is strongly needed. Signal changes on MRI in the vertebral body marrow adjacent to the end plates also known as Modic changes (MC) are common in patients with LBP (18-58%) and is strongly associated with LBP. In asymptomatic persons the prevalence is 12-13%. MC are divided into three different types. Type 1 consists of fibro vascular tissue, type 2 is yellow fat, and type 3 is sclerotic bone. The temporal evolution of MC is uncertain, but the time span is years. Subchondral bone marrow signal changes associated with pain can be observed in different specific infectious, degenerative and immunological diseases such as osseous infections, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and spondylarthritis. In the vertebrae, MC is seen in relation to vertebral fractures, spondylodiscitis, disc herniation, severe disc degeneration, injections with chymopapain, and acute Schmorl's impressions. The aim of this paper is to propose two possible pathogenetic mechanisms causing Modic changes. These are: A mechanical cause: Degeneration of the disc causes loss of soft nuclear material, reduced disc height and hydrostatic pressure, which increases the shear forces on the endplates and micro fractures may occur. The observed MC could represent oedema secondary to the fracture and subsequent inflammation, or a result of an inflammatory process from a toxic stimulus from the nucleus pulposus that seeps through the fractures. A bacterial cause: Following a tear in the outer fibres of the annulus e.g. disc herniation, new capilarisation and inflammation develop around the extruded nuclear material. Through this tissue it is possible for anaerobic bacteria to enter the anaerobic disc and in this environment cause a slowly developing low virulent infection. The MC could be the visible signs of the inflammation and oedema surrounding this infection, because the anaerobic bacteria cannot thrive in the highly aerobic environment of the MC type 1.

Perspectives: One or both of the described mechanisms can - if proven - be of significant importance for this specific subgroup of patients with LBP. Hence, it would be possible to give a more precise and relevant diagnosis to 20-50% of patients with LBP and enable in the development of efficient treatments which might be antibiotics, special rehabilitation programmes, rest, stabilizing exercise, or surgical fixation, depending on the underlying cause for the MC.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria, Anaerobic / pathogenicity
  • Bacterial Infections / complications
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Bone Marrow / pathology
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / complications
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / microbiology
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / physiopathology
  • Low Back Pain / classification
  • Low Back Pain / etiology*
  • Low Back Pain / pathology
  • Low Back Pain / physiopathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Models, Biological
  • Spine / pathology