Stem Cell Therapies for Treatment of Discogenic Low Back Pain: a Comprehensive Review

Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2019 Jul 29;23(9):65. doi: 10.1007/s11916-019-0804-y.


Purpose of review: Discogenic low back pain (DLBP) stems from pathology in one or more intervertebral discs identified as the root cause of the pain. It is the most common type of chronic low back pain (LBP), representing 26-42% of attributable cases.

Recent findings: The clinical presentation of DLBP includes increased pain when sitting, coughing, or sneezing, and experiencing relief when standing or ambulating. Dermatomal radiation of pain to the lower extremity and neurological symptoms including numbness, motor weakness, and urinary or fecal incontinence are signs of advanced disease with disc prolapse, nerve root compression, or spinal stenosis. Degenerative disc disease is caused by both a decrease in disc nutrient supply causing decreased oxygen, lowered pH, and lessened ability of the intervertebral disc (IVD) to respond to increased load or injury; moreover, changes in the extracellular matrix composition cause weakening of the tissue and skewing the extracellular matrix's (ECM) harmonious balance between catabolic and anabolic factors for cell turnover in favor of catabolism. Thus, the degeneration of the disc causes a shift from type II to type I collagen expression by NP cells and a decrease in aggrecan synthesis leads to dehydrated matrix cells ultimately with loss of swelling pressure needed for mechanical support. Cell-based therapies such as autologous nucleus pulposus cell re-implantation have in animal models and human trials shown improvements in LBP score, retention of hydration in IVD, and increased disc height. Percutaneously delivered multipotent mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy has been proposed as a potential means to uniquely ameliorate discogenic LBP holistically through three mechanisms: mitigation of primary nociceptive disc pain, slow or reversal of the catabolic metabolism, and restoration of disc tissue. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can differentiate into cells of all three germ layers in vitro, but their use is hindered related to ethical concerns, potential for immune rejection after transplantation, disease, and teratoma formation. Another similar approach to treating back pain is transplantation of the nucleus pulposus, which, like stem cell therapy, seeks to address the underlying cause of intervertebral disc degeneration by aiming to reverse the destructive inflammatory process and regenerate the proteoglycans and collagen found in healthy disc tissue. Preliminary animal models and clinical studies have shown mesenchymal stem cell implantation as a potential therapy for IVD regeneration and ECM restoration via a shift towards favorable anabolic balance and reduction of pain.

Keywords: Degenerative disc disease; Discogenic pain; Embryonic stem cells; Low back pain; Mesenchymal stem cells; Nucleus pulposus transplantation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / transplantation
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / complications
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / diagnosis
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / therapy*
  • Low Back Pain / diagnosis
  • Low Back Pain / etiology
  • Low Back Pain / therapy*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cell Transplantation / methods*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cell Transplantation / trends
  • Treatment Outcome