Study design: Herniated lumbar disc specimens were obtained from patients undergoing surgical discectomy for persistent radiculopathy and cultured in vitro to determine whether various biochemical agents were being produced.
Objectives: Our hypothesis is that biochemical mediators of inflammation and tissue degradation play a role in intervertebral disc degeneration and in the pathophysiology of radiculopathy.
Summary of background data: Low back pain with or without radiculopathy is a significant clinical problem, but the etiology of low back pain and the exact pathophysiology of radiculopathy remain elusive. The biochemical events that occur with intervertebral disc degeneration and, in particular, the role of biochemical mediators of inflammation and tissue degradation have received sparse attention in the literature. There is some preliminary evidence that inflammatory mediators may have an important role in the pathophysiology of radiculopathy.
Methods: Eighteen herniated lumbar discs were obtained from 15 patients undergoing disc surgery. The specimens were cultured and incubated for 72 hours, and the media were collected subsequently for biochemical analysis. Biochemical assays for matrix metalloproteinases, nitric oxide, prostaglandin E2, and a variety of cytokines were performed. As a control group, eight lumbar disc specimens were obtained from four patients undergoing anterior surgery for scoliosis and traumatic burst fractures, and similar biochemical analyses were performed.
Results: The culture media from the herniated lumbar discs showed increased levels of matrix metalloproteinase activity compared with the control discs. Similarly, the levels of nitric oxide, prostaglandin E2, and interleukin-6 were significantly higher in the herniated discs compared with the control discs. Interleukin 1 alpha, interleukin-1 beta, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein, and substance P were not detected in the culture media of either the herniated or control discs.
Conclusions: Herniated lumbar discs were making spontaneously increased amounts of matrix metalloproteinases, nitric oxide, prostaglandin E2, and interleukin-6. These products may be involved intimately in the biochemistry of disc degeneration and the pathophysiology of radiculopathy. Their exact roles certainly need further investigation, but their mere presence implicates biochemical processes in intervertebral disc degeneration.