Immunohistochemical demonstration of sensory and autonomic nerve terminals in herniated lumbar disc tissue

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1996 Jun 1;21(11):1301-6. doi: 10.1097/00007632-199606010-00004.


Study design: Thirty-five lumbar disc herniations removed at surgery were studied by indirect immunocytochemistry.

Objectives: To localize immunohistochemically both sensory and autonomic nerve terminals in disc herniations.

Summary of background data: Using various more or less specific histologic and histochemical methods, investigators have reported the presence of free nerve terminals in disc tissue. However, very few studies have, to date, convincingly demonstrated nerve terminals in disc tissue that morphologically resemble the tiny nerve terminals of sensory and autonomic nerve fibers.

Methods: Amplification of the peroxidase reaction product in avidin-biotin-peroxidase complex immunostaining by the glucose oxidase-diaminobenzidine-nickel sulfate method was used to visualize small punctate nerve terminals at high magnification. Thin frozen sections from disc herniation tissue prefixed in Zamboni fixative were incubated with antibodies to synaptophysin to visualize nerve terminals in general, and with antibodies to substance P and C-flanking peptide of neuropeptide Y to further characterize nerve terminals as either sensory or sympathetic.

Results: Nerve terminals could be demonstrated in 29 (83%) of the 35 disc herniations. They were observed with the synaptophysin antibody in 17 of 35 (49%) disc herniations, with substance P in 16 of 35 (46%) disc herniations, and with C-flanking peptide of neuropeptide Y in 13 of 35 (37%) disc herniations. Morphologically, the nerve terminals were seen as tiny immunoreactive dots. Some of the nerve terminals were observed close to disc cells, possibly suggesting direct interaction.

Conclusions: Small nerve terminals in disc herniations, both sensory substance P endings and sympathetic C-flanking peptide of neuropeptide Y endings, could be involved in mechanisms of discogenic pain, disc tissue neurogenic inflammation, tissue repair processes after injury, and control of local blood circulation in the newly formed blood vessels. Disc cells may be directly affected by the neuropeptides released from nearby nerve terminals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / metabolism
  • Autonomic Nervous System / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry / methods
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / metabolism
  • Intervertebral Disc Displacement / pathology*
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / metabolism
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / pathology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Endings / metabolism
  • Nerve Endings / pathology*
  • Neuropeptide Y / metabolism
  • Peptide Fragments / metabolism
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Staining and Labeling
  • Substance P / metabolism
  • Synaptophysin / metabolism


  • Neuropeptide Y
  • Peptide Fragments
  • Synaptophysin
  • Substance P