Stem Cell Therapies for Treatment of Discogenic Low Back Pain: a Comprehensive Review

  • Ivan UritsEmail author
  • Alexander Capuco
  • Medha Sharma
  • Alan D. Kaye
  • Omar Viswanath
  • Elyse M. Cornett
  • Vwaire Orhurhu
Hot Topics in Pain and Headache (N Rosen, Section Editor)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Hot Topics in Pain and Headache


Purpose of Review

Discogenic low back pain (DLBP) stems from pathology in one or more intervertebral discs identified as the root cause of the pain. It is the most common type of chronic low back pain (LBP), representing 26–42% of attributable cases.

Recent Findings

The clinical presentation of DLBP includes increased pain when sitting, coughing, or sneezing, and experiencing relief when standing or ambulating. Dermatomal radiation of pain to the lower extremity and neurological symptoms including numbness, motor weakness, and urinary or fecal incontinence are signs of advanced disease with disc prolapse, nerve root compression, or spinal stenosis. Degenerative disc disease is caused by both a decrease in disc nutrient supply causing decreased oxygen, lowered pH, and lessened ability of the intervertebral disc (IVD) to respond to increased load or injury; moreover, changes in the extracellular matrix composition cause weakening of the tissue and skewing the extracellular matrix’s (ECM) harmonious balance between catabolic and anabolic factors for cell turnover in favor of catabolism. Thus, the degeneration of the disc causes a shift from type II to type I collagen expression by NP cells and a decrease in aggrecan synthesis leads to dehydrated matrix cells ultimately with loss of swelling pressure needed for mechanical support. Cell-based therapies such as autologous nucleus pulposus cell re-implantation have in animal models and human trials shown improvements in LBP score, retention of hydration in IVD, and increased disc height. Percutaneously delivered multipotent mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy has been proposed as a potential means to uniquely ameliorate discogenic LBP holistically through three mechanisms: mitigation of primary nociceptive disc pain, slow or reversal of the catabolic metabolism, and restoration of disc tissue. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can differentiate into cells of all three germ layers in vitro, but their use is hindered related to ethical concerns, potential for immune rejection after transplantation, disease, and teratoma formation. Another similar approach to treating back pain is transplantation of the nucleus pulposus, which, like stem cell therapy, seeks to address the underlying cause of intervertebral disc degeneration by aiming to reverse the destructive inflammatory process and regenerate the proteoglycans and collagen found in healthy disc tissue.


Preliminary animal models and clinical studies have shown mesenchymal stem cell implantation as a potential therapy for IVD regeneration and ECM restoration via a shift towards favorable anabolic balance and reduction of pain.


Low back pain Mesenchymal stem cells Embryonic stem cells Degenerative disc disease Discogenic pain Nucleus pulposus transplantation 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Ivan Urits, Alexander Capuco, Medha Sharma, Omar Viswanath, Elyse M. Cornett, and Vwaire Orhurhu declare no conflict of interest. Alan D. Kaye discloses that he is on the Speakers Bureau for Depomed, Inc. and Merck.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ivan Urits
    • 1
    Email author
  • Alexander Capuco
    • 2
  • Medha Sharma
    • 3
  • Alan D. Kaye
    • 4
  • Omar Viswanath
    • 5
    • 6
    • 7
  • Elyse M. Cornett
    • 8
  • Vwaire Orhurhu
    • 1
  1. 1.Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care, and Pain MedicineHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  2. 2.Georgetown University School of MedicineWashingtonUSA
  3. 3.University of Pennsylvania School of MedicinePhiladelphiaUSA
  4. 4.Department of AnesthesiologyLouisiana State University Health Sciences CenterNew OrleansUSA
  5. 5.Valley Anesthesiology and Pain ConsultantsPhoenixUSA
  6. 6.Department of AnesthesiologyUniversity of Arizona College of Medicine-PhoenixPhoenixUSA
  7. 7.Department of Anesthesiology, School of MedicineCreighton UniversityOmahaUSA
  8. 8.Department of AnesthesiologyLouisiana State University Health ShreveportShreveportUSA

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