This paper offers a mechanistic account of back pain which attempts to incorporate all of the most important recent advances in spinal research. Anatomical and pain-provocation studies show that severe and chronic back pain most often originates in the lumbar intervertebral discs, the apophyseal joints, and the sacroiliac joints. Psychosocial factors influence many aspects of back pain behaviour but they are not important determinants of who will experience back pain in the first place. Back pain is closely (but not invariably) associated with structural pathology such as intervertebral disc prolapse and endplate fractures, although age-related biochemical changes such as those revealed by a ‘dark disc’ on MRI have little clinical relevance. All features of structural pathology (including disc prolapse) can be re-created in cadaveric specimens by severe or repetitive mechanical loading, with a combination of bending and compression being particularly harmful to the spine. Structural disruption alters the mechanical environment of disc cells in a manner that leads to cell-mediated degenerative changes, and animal experiments confirm that surgical disruption of a disc is followed by widespread disc degeneration. Some people are more vulnerable to spinal degeneration than others, largely because of their genetic inheritance. Age-related biochemical changes and loading history can also affect tissue vulnerability. Finally the concept of ‘functional pathology’ is introduced, according to which, back pain can arise because postural habits generate painful stress concentrations within innervated tissues, even though the stresses are not high enough to cause physical disruption.
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