Addressing Neuroplastic Changes in Distributed Areas of the Nervous System Associated With Chronic Musculoskeletal Disorders

Phys Ther. 2015 Nov;95(11):1582-91. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20140575. Epub 2015 May 7.


Present interventions utilized in musculoskeletal rehabilitation are guided, in large part, by a biomedical model where peripheral structural injury is believed to be the sole driver of the disorder. There are, however, neurophysiological changes across different areas of the peripheral and central nervous systems, including peripheral receptors, dorsal horn of the spinal cord, brain stem, sensorimotor cortical areas, and the mesolimbic and prefrontal areas associated with chronic musculoskeletal disorders, including chronic low back pain, osteoarthritis, and tendon injuries. These neurophysiological changes appear not only to be a consequence of peripheral structural injury but also to play a part in the pathophysiology of chronic musculoskeletal disorders. Neurophysiological changes are consistent with a biopsychosocial formulation reflecting the underlying mechanisms associated with sensory and motor findings, psychological traits, and perceptual changes associated with chronic musculoskeletal conditions. These changes, therefore, have important implications in the clinical manifestation, pathophysiology, and treatment of chronic musculoskeletal disorders. Musculoskeletal rehabilitation professionals have at their disposal tools to address these neuroplastic changes, including top-down cognitive-based interventions (eg, education, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness meditation, motor imagery) and bottom-up physical interventions (eg, motor learning, peripheral sensory stimulation, manual therapy) that induce neuroplastic changes across distributed areas of the nervous system and affect outcomes in patients with chronic musculoskeletal disorders. Furthermore, novel approaches such as the use of transcranial direct current stimulation and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation may be utilized to help renormalize neurological function. Comprehensive treatment addressing peripheral structural injury as well as neurophysiological changes occurring across distributed areas of the nervous system may help to improve outcomes in patients with chronic musculoskeletal disorders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Humans
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / rehabilitation*
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Prognosis
  • Recovery of Function