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The pathogenesis of degeneration of the intervertebral disc and emerging therapies in the management of back pain

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This article reviews the current knowledge of the intervertebral disc (IVD) and its association with low back pain (LBP). The normal IVD is a largely avascular and aneural structure with a high water content, its nutrients mainly diffusing through the end plates. IVD degeneration occurs when its cells die or become dysfunctional, notably in an acidic environment. In the process of degeneration, the IVD becomes dehydrated and vascularised, and there is an ingrowth of nerves. Although not universally the case, the altered physiology of the IVD is believed to precede or be associated with many clinical symptoms or conditions including low back and/or lower limb pain, paraesthesia, spinal stenosis and disc herniation.

New treatment options have been developed in recent years. These include biological therapies and novel surgical techniques (such as total disc replacement), although many of these are still in their experimental phase. Central to developing further methods of treatment is the need for effective ways in which to assess patients and measure their outcomes. However, significant difficulties remain and it is therefore an appropriate time to be further investigating the scientific basis of and treatment of LBP.

Correspondence should be sent to Professor S. P. F. Hughes; e-mail:

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