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Schmerz. 2001 Dec;15(6):413-7.

[Pathophysiology of low back pain and the transition to the chronic state - experimental data and new concepts].

[Article in German]

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Institut für Anatomie und Zellbiologie III, Klinikum der Universität Heidelberg.


The present article concentrates on mechanisms that lead to the excitation of nociceptors in soft tissues and nociceptive neurones in the spinal dorsal horn. These mechanisms may contribute to the so-called unspecific low back pain. Properties of nociceptors in soft tissues: A nociceptive ending in soft tissue contains a multitude of receptor molecules in its membrane. The molecular receptors include binding sites for algesic substances that are released during painful stimulation or pathologic alterations of the tissue: bradykinin (BK), serotonin (5-HT), prostaglandin E2 (PG E2), adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and protons (H(+)). The excitation and sensitisation of nociceptors by these substances can be explained by the binding of the substances to the receptor molecules in the membrane of the receptive ending and ensuing opening of ion channels or activation of metabolic cascades. Purinergic receptor molecules in the membrane of nociceptors are activated by ATP. These receptors may be of particular importance for deep somatic pain, because ATP is present in large amounts in muscle tissue and is released during muscle damage. ATP-sensitive nociceptors appear to be distinct from nociceptors that can be excited by protons. The conduction of nociceptive information from muscle to the spinal cord is partly carried by unmyelinated fibres that possess tetrodotoxin-resistant (TTX-r) Na(+)-channels. Therefore, a drug that specifically blocks TTX-r Na(+)-channels would be a new attractive tool in the treatment of patients with deep somatic pain. Chronic muscle lesions such as a myositis have been shown to be associated with a higher innervation density of the tissue with free nerve endings that contain the neuropeptide substance P (SP). Many of these endings are likely to be nociceptors. Since a painful stimulus that acts on a muscle with increased nociceptor density will excite more nociceptors and elicit more pain, the increase in nociceptor density constitutes a peripheral mechanism for hyperalgesia. In muscle free nerve endings - many of which are nociceptive - the neuropeptides SP, calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) and somatostatin have been shown to be present. These substances are released from the receptive endings in muscle when they are stimulated. SP and CGRP have a strong effect on blood vessels and induce local vasodilatation and oedema. The local oedema in the vicinity of the nociceptor is associated with the release of BK from plasma proteins, which increases the excitability of the nerve ending (see below). Thus, a local vicious cycle forms that may contribute to the formation of trigger points. Sensitisation of nociceptors and peripheral hyperalgesia: Nociceptors are easily sensitised, i.e. following a conditioning stimulus they are more sensitive to the unconditioned stimulus. In animals and humans, the responses to injections of BK can be increased by 5-HT or PG E2. The responses of muscle nociceptors to mechanical stimuli are likewise enhanced after administration of BK. During overuse, ischemia or inflammation of soft tissues, the tissue concentrations of BK, PG E2, and 5-HT are elevated and sensitise muscle nociceptors. A sensitised nociceptor is excited and elicits pain when innocuous mechanical stimuli act on the muscle, e.g. during contractions or stretch. Therefore, in chronically altered soft tissues, weak everyday stimuli are likely to cause pain. Mechanisms at the spinal level: In experiments on rats in which a myositis of the gastrocnemius-soleus (GS) muscle was induced experimentally, the effects of a peripheral painful lesion on the discharge behaviour of sensory dorsal horn neurones were studied. One of the main effects of the myositis was an expansion of the input (target) region of the muscle nerve, i.e. the population of dorsal horn neurones responding to an electrical standard stimulus applied to the GS muscle nerve grew larger. One reason for the myositis-induced expansion of the input region is hyperexcitability of the neurones caused by the release of SP and glutamate from the spinal terminals of muscle afferents with ensuing activation of NMDA channels in dorsal horn neurones (central sensitisation). The central sensitisation is of clinical importance because it can explain the hyperalgesia and spread of pain in patients. In contrast to excitability, the resting activity of dorsal horn neurones - which is likely to induce spontaneous pain in patients - does not appear to depend on the release of SP and glutamate but on the concentration of nitric oxide (NO) in the spinal cord. A pharmacological block of the NO synthesis led to a significant increase in background activity without affecting the excitability of the dorsal horn neurones. Such an increase in background activity was observed exclusively in nociceptive neurones, i.e. a local lack of NO in the spinal cord induces spontaneous pain. According to data from animal experiments, a decrease in the spinal NO concentration occurs as a sequel of a chronic muscle lesion; therefore, a lack of NO is a probable factor for the induction of chronic spontaneous pain. Normally, lesion-induced pain subsides and does not develop into chronic pain. The mechanisms governing the return to normal neuronal behaviour after a peripheral lesion are not well studied. Probably, the activation of inhibitory mechanisms, e.g. increased spinal synthesis of GABA or elevated activity of the descending antinociceptive system contribute to the restoration of normal function. The final step in the transition from acute to chronic pain are structural changes that perpetuate the functional changes. In the rat myositis model, an increase in the number of synapses on the surface of NO-snythesizing cells was present 8 h following induction of the myositis. These data show that structural changes appear quite early in the development of a painful disorder. A novel hypothesis for the development of chronic pain states that a strong nociceptive input to the spinal cord leads to cell death predominantly in inhibitory interneurones. Most of these interneurones are assumed to be tonically active; when their number decreases, the nociceptive neurones are chronically disinhibited and elicit continuous pain also in the absence of a noxious stimulus.

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