Can specific loading through exercise impart healing or regeneration of the intervertebral disc?

Spine J. 2015 Oct 1;15(10):2117-21. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2014.08.446.


Background context: Low back pain (LBP) is highly prevalent and presents an enormous cost both through direct health care and indirectly through significant work and production loss. Low back pain is acknowledged widely to be a multifactorial pathology with a variety of symptoms, dysfunctions, and a number of possible sources of pain. One source that has been suspected and evidenced for some time is the intervertebral disc. Some degree of disc degeneration is a physiologic process associated with aging, however, more severe degeneration and/or structural abnormality may be indicative of a pathologic process or injury and is more commonly present in those suffering from LBP. Much like other tissues (ie, muscle, bone, etc.), it has been suspected that there exists an optimal loading strategy to promote the health of the disc. Exercise is often prescribed for LBP and effectively reduces pain and disability. However, whether specific loading through exercise might plausibly heal or regenerate the intervertebral discs is unknown.

Purpose: To examine the effects of loading on regenerative processes in the intervertebral disc and consider the potential for specific exercise to apply loading to the lumbar spine to produce these effects.

Study design: A brief narrative literature review.

Methods: Studies examining the effects of loading on the intervertebral discs were reviewed to examine the plausibility of using loading through exercise to induce regeneration or healing of the intervertebral disc.

Results: Research from animal model studies suggests the existence of a dose-response relationship between loading and regenerative processes. Although high loading at high volumes and frequencies might accelerate degeneration or produce disc injury, high loading, yet of low volume and at low frequency appears to induce potentially regenerative mechanisms, including improvements in disc proteoglycan content, matrix gene expression, rate of cell apoptosis, and improved fluid flow and solute transport.

Conclusions: Research suggests a dose-response relationship between loading and disc regenerative processes and that the loading pattern typically used in the lumbar extension resistance exercise interventions (high load, low volume, and low frequency) might impart healing or regeneration of the intervertebral discs. Future research should examine an exercise intervention with in vivo measurement of changes in disc condition. This may provide further evidence for the "black box" of treatment mechanisms associated with exercise interventions.

Keywords: Disc; Injury; Low back pain; MRI; Resistance training; Review; Strength training; Therapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Exercise Therapy
  • Exercise*
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc / physiology*
  • Intervertebral Disc / physiopathology
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / diagnosis
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / physiopathology*
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / therapy
  • Male
  • Regeneration*