Researchers studying autoimmune disease have found a link between immune response and back pain. According to a study by Duke University Medical Center published in the July issue of the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, a response by immune cells was observed when a herniated disc was present.
A herniated disc is a condition in which the annulus fibrosus (outer portion) of the vertebral disc is torn, enabling the nucleus pulposus (inner portion) to herniate or extrude through the fibers. The nucleus is not normally exposed to the immune system while it is within the spinal column. When it is exposed because of a tear in the outer portion of the disc, the body sees the nucleus as a foreign object, similar to an infection or a tumor, and an immune response is triggered. This can cause inflammation or damage to the nerve root of the disc.
The research done in this study identified cytokine molecule interleukin-17 (IL-17) as the immune component that identifies the nucleus as a foreign object and sets off the immune response. The researchers believe that by identifying the specific immune cells that are excited by IL-17, a treatment could be developed that would decrease the inflammation and damage done by the immune system to the nerve root for a herniated disc.
The key will be to create a treatment that suppresses the body’s response to the nucleus fibrosis but not compromise its ability to fight off infection or tumors. Several more studies will be needed before human testing would start on IL-17 blockers.