New Clues to Herniated Disc Pain

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An immune cell that causes inflammation in autoimmune disorders may play a role in back pain, researchers find

WEDNESDAY, June 30 (HealthDay News) -- An immune cell known to cause inflammation in autoimmune disorders may play a role in back pain associated with herniated discs, says a new study.

This finding adds to growing evidence that an immune response is a major factor in spinal disc disease. It may eventually help lead to new treatments that target a specific immune process to treat or even possibly reverse disc disease, according to the Duke University Medical Center researchers.

The immune cell -- known as cytokine molecule interleukin-17 (IL-17) -- appears to help set in motion the painful inflammation associated with disc disease.

A herniated disc occurs when the outer layer of cartilage cracks, and pieces of the softer inner material of the disc protrude into the spinal canal, first author Dr. Mohammed Shamji, a senior neurosurgery resident at the Ottawa Hospital in Canada, explained in a Duke news release.

The inner material of the disc has never been exposed to the immune system, which attacks the material as it would any virus or foreign body. This causes the nerve root, which is present or near the protruding disc material, to became inflamed and damaged.

The researchers found that IL-17 plays a key role in this cascade of events.

"By identifying the specific subpopulation of lymphocytes (immune cells that are excited into action by the cytokine), it may soon be possible to arrest the body's inflammatory response to disc cells," senior author Dr. William J. Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon at Duke, said in the news release.

Researchers speculate that by targeting a treatment to these specific cells involved in disc inflammation, the body's ability to fight off invaders will be left intact.

"It's a product of a specific subgroup of immune cells that involved in autoimmune phenomena like rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, but not in the body's response against infection or tumor. If you target this specific lymphocyte, you may avoid compromising the body's ability to protect itself against infection or tumor," Shamji added.

He and colleagues say they're still several steps away from human studies of IL-17 blockers.

The study, published online June 29, appears in the July issue of the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about herniated disc.

-- Robert Preidt
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