Back pain can get on your nerves. If you slip a disc or your spinal canal narrows due to arthritis, the tissues, bones and ligaments in your back can move out of place. And when they do, they can press against the nerve tissue that runs through your spinal cord and spreads through your back.
Why it hurts
Nerve tissue is made up of two types of cells — neurons, which transmit electrical signals, and glial cells, which are the protective, connective part of the tissue.
Neurons communicate with the brain by sending and receiving impulses that control movement, touch, taste and a host of other functions.When nerve tissues in the back are compromised, it changes the signals they send.
The altered signals — a type of cry for help to the brain — may trigger the feeling of severe pain. In a sense, the new signals are the nerve tissues' way of asking to be freed so they can go back to their regular jobs.
Freeing the nerves
Doctors have developed several methods to help relieve the pressure and pain on the nerve tissue in the spinal cord. Exercise and physical therapy are used to try to move tissues, bones and ligaments back into place. Medications interfere with the pain signals, while acupuncture uses needles to redirect energy and interrupt pain.
If these treatments aren't successful, surgery is available for some patients. Doctors at Rush University Medical Center often use minimally invasive techniques when they perform these procedures.
"These techniques allow us to free the nerve tissue in the spinal cord without doing damage to the nerves, blood vessels and muscles surrounding these tissues," says Richard Fessler, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon at Rush.
The next step for spinal surgery may be no surgery at all. "I think future innovations won't come in technique or technology, but in biology," Fessler says. "Rather than taking out a damaged disc, we will regenerate the damaged tissues in the spine so it is healthy again."
Regrowing nerve tissue
Fessler is already working on regenerating nerve tissue for patients who have had spinal cord injuries. These injuries can damage the nerve cells inside the cord so severely that they no longer function. In some injuries, the nerve tissue is completely destroyed.
Without it, no signals flow between the spinal cord and the brain. When it can't receive a signal to tell it to move, the part of the body with damaged nerve tissue becomes paralyzed.
Doctors have been experimenting with ways to regenerate these nerve cells and restore communication. "The theory holds that if we transplant a stem cell into the spinal cord, the body should induce it to develop into nerve tissue or supporting tissues that are necessary for the functioning of the spinal cord," says Fessler.
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