Peripheral and Central Pathological Mechanisms of Chronic Low Back Pain: A Narrative Review

J Pain Res. 2021 May 27:14:1483-1494. doi: 10.2147/JPR.S306280. eCollection 2021.


Chronic low back pain (CLBP), lasting >3 months, is the end result of multiple pathogenic factors. Unfortunately, little is known about CLBP pathogenesis, which limits its advancements in clinical therapy and disease management. This paper summarizes the known pathological axes of CLBP, involving both peripheral and central systems. In particular, this paper details injurious nerve stimulation, inflammation-induced peripheral pathway, and central sensitization. Lumbar components, such as intervertebral disc (IVD), facet joints, muscles, fascia, ligaments, and joint capsules, contain pain receptors called nociceptors. Degeneration of the aforementioned lumbar components activates inflammatory pathways, which can directly damage nerves, lower nociceptor threshold to fire action potentials (AP), and cause pain. Additionally, damaged lumbar IVDs and endplates can also lead to the pathologic invasion of nerve growth and innervation, followed by the compression of herniated IVDs on nerve roots, thereby causing traumatic neuropathic pain. The central mechanism of CLBP involves alteration of the sensory processing of the brain and malfunction of the descending pain modulatory system, which facilitates pain amplification in the center nervous system (CNS). Lastly, abnormalities in the brain biochemical metabolism, activation of glial cells, and subsequent inflammation also play important roles in CLBP development. Taken together, inflammation plays an important role in both peripheral and central sensitization of CLBP. Due to the heterogeneity of CLBP, its pathological mechanism remains complex and difficult to understand. Therefore, it is a worthy field for future research into the subcomponents of CLBP pathogenesis, in order to distinguish the specific form of the disease, identify its origins, and develop corresponding highly effective comprehensive therapy against CLBP.

Keywords: central sensitization; chronic low back pain; degeneration; inflammation; nerve innervation.

Publication types

  • Review