Types of conservative care treatments and spinal injections for low back pain, degenerative disc disease, lumbar instability

Ross Hauser, MD and Danielle Matias, PA-C

Many people that read articles on lumbar or spinal instability are clearly still searching for some answers for their or a loved one’s chronic pain issues. These people are typically someone who have had many years of treatments, a list of general and more specific recommendations to consider for the the various forms of spinal surgery that may be available to them, and most impactful, they suffer from a reduced quality of life because of back pain and loss of function.

These people do understand that their lumbar instability describes two or more vertebrae in the lumbar spine that are wandering around, banging into each other, compressing nerves, and herniating discs.  They are also progressing to a point where their spine will no longer be able to support the weight of their core, torso, and upper body. They may be at a point where their bodies are desperately trying to support the spine with bone spurs and a natural form of spinal fusion. They are at the point of lumbar osteoarthritis.

The people I have described above have likely taken their fair share of anti-inflammatory medications, painkillers, nutritional supplements, and other home remedies to help them get through their day and night of back pain. As mentioned many have also had various discussions on the possibility of now or future spinal surgery. Except in a life-threatening situation or impending neurologic injury, surgery should always be a last resort and performed only after all conservative treatments have been exhausted. Pain is not a life-threatening situation, although it can be very anxiety-provoking, life-demeaning, and aggravating. Pain should not be an automatic indication that surgery is necessary. As you are reading this article it is very likely that you have had years of various treatments with varying degrees of short-term success. Obviously, if your treatments or surgery were successful, you would not be reading this article.

People with low back pain may spend years or decades of their lives in pursuit of something, or anything, that will help them with their low back pain. These people, perhaps like yourself, may find short-term relief with rest, pain medications, trigger point shots, manipulation, and massage, but these treatments are usually temporary in their benefits.

One reason that long-term relief and improvement in function are not attained is that these remedies and treatments may be addressing the wrong problem or are simply providing pain suppression, sometimes at a great cost to quality of life.

Article Summary:


Treating back pain and lumbar spinal instability

Treating chronic back pain can be tricky. Somedays a person’s back will hurt them tremendously, other days the person feels little to no pain. To the person with the back pain, it is a mystery to them why their back hurts sometimes and other times does not. Was their disc not as herniated today? Was their nerves not as compressed today? How come their muscles were not sore today? For most the answer is an unstable spine or spinal instability that causes pain with certain and prolonged movements, but limited or no pain with other activity.

In the image below we see lumbar instability seen under fluoroscopic motion imaging in flexion (patient is bending forward). When the person bends forward, the vertebrae start wandering out of position because the spine is not stable. When the person bends backward, the vertebrae line up as they should. The spinal instability is coming from the spinal ligament’s inability to hold the vertebrae in place while bending forward.

lumbar instability seen under fluoroscopic motion imaging in flexion

Lumbar instability is chronic in nature. People have had it come and go perhaps many times over many years. The problem for most people of course is that “it always comes back.” Why does it always come back? One reason is that the treatments for it are not the correct treatments. So, let’s get into the research of treating chronic low back pain cases.

The use of Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antidepressants 

There is some consensus in the medical community on how to treat acute low back pain, but the treatment of chronic low back pain presents many challenges and little agreement on the standard of care. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antidepressants provide some short-term benefits, but no published data warrant their long-term use. This was pointed out recently in the journal Systematic Reviews (24) February 2021. Here researchers described small benefits in anti-depressant use for people with back pain.

In this study, the researchers suggested:

Numerous recently published clinical care guidelines call for nonpharmacological approaches to pain management. However, little data (research) exists regarding the extent to which these guidelines have been adopted by patients and medical doctors. In other words, are the doctors and patients compliant in trying to avoid pharmacological pain management?

Manipulative therapy, physiotherapy, and massage therapy studies have also shown only temporary benefits.

A March 2019 paper in the British Medical Journal (25) suggests that “In the treatment of chronic low back pain in adults, moderate-quality evidence suggests that spinal manipulative therapy results in similar outcomes to recommended therapies (exercise, physical therapy) for short, intermediate, and long term pain relief as well as improvement in function. In addition, the quality of evidence varied suggesting that spinal manipulative therapy does not result in clinically better effects for pain relief but does result in clinically better short-term improvement in function compared with non-recommended therapies, or sham, and when included as adjuvant therapy.

The most common cause of unresolved chronic back pain is spinal instability. In the instance of low back pain, injury to the sacroiliac ligaments typically occurs from bending over and twisting with the knees in a locked, extended position. This maneuver stretches the sacroiliac ligaments, placing them in a vulnerable position. Remember that because the ligaments are white (poor blood supply), they are very unlikely to heal on their own, especially in chronic back pain, yet are incredibly important for spinal stability and movement. Thus, spending a lot of time and money on therapies that work the surrounding muscles is only going to produce a temporary benefit. This should come as no surprise as you understand the principles of Prolotherapy or ligament repair treatments. Patients with back pain frequently complain about muscle tightness, spasms, or feeling like the SI might “give out.” They focus so much on the muscles (workout harder, stretch more, get more massage, etc…), that they forget why the muscles got that way is due to overcompensation for the lack of stability in the ligaments that hold the lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints in place.

Patients went to see their doctor for low back pain – what types of treatments did they get?

Recommended medical treatments: acetaminophen, NSAIDs, opioids, benzodiazepines, Gabapentin, Neurontin, and cortisone injections.

In a March 2021 paper led by the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Duke University School of Medicine and published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (26) the researchers found that patients indeed were being prescribed many treatments for their low back pain. In this study, patients went to see their doctor for low back pain. Following their visit, the study researchers contacted these patients to ask about the types of treatment recommendations they were getting. “Participants were asked about medical doctor recommendations for both drug (acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs], opioids, benzodiazepines, Gabapentin, Neurontin, and cortisone injections) and nondrug (self-care treatments, massage, acupuncture, spinal manipulation, and physical therapy) treatments.

This is what they got:

Nearly two-thirds of the patients reported that their doctor had recommended prescription medications, including opioids, benzodiazepines, Gabapentin, Neurontin, or cortisone injections. Reported adherence to treatment recommendations ranged from 68% for acupuncture to 94% for NSAIDs. In other words, the patients were listening to their doctors and following through on treatment recommendations.

Further: A lot of people are still being prescribed opioids which the researchers found “surprising”

Research has shown that the majority of opioid users report back pain. The researchers of this study noted: The known risks of death and overdose resulting from opioids coupled with increasing pressure to avoid opioid prescribing, make the high number of our respondents (29%) who reported that their MD recommended the use of opioids in the past 12 months surprising.

More treatments considered surprising or questionable 

The study also notes more than a third of respondents (38%) reported a recommendation of cortisone injections, a treatment that may offer short-term benefits, but it is also associated with a significant risk of contamination and infection. Cortisone injections are generally not recommended in clinical care guidelines due to weak evidence for pain and function benefits.

Patients selected their own treatments with MD guidelines:

The search for the baseline cause of low back pain is often elusive.

What causes low back pain? There are many causes. Most commonly are problems with herniated discs, Facet Syndrome, Lumbar stenosis, Lumbar Spondylolisthesis, various spinal curvature problems including lordosis, kyphosis, and scoliosis. What all of these problems have in common is lumbar instability. The vertebrae are moving our of their natural alignment. What causes lumbar instability? Spinal ligament weakness and damage.

For the most part, may people have not been told that their spinal ligaments are weak. Many patients are not even informed that the spinal ligaments are what hold the vertebrae to each other. A ligament is a band of connective tissue that holds bone to bone. Of all the ligaments the most famous one lives in the knee the ACL, anterior cruciate ligament, which connects the thigh to the shin bone.

Since the majority of spinal ligament injuries cannot be seen on a conventional x-ray or MRIs, doctors and patients look for other problems or diagnoses, such as the previously mentioned degenerative disc disease, stenosis, SI joint pain, among others. Yet in many cases, the common underlying cause of low back pain, and degenerative arthritis in the spine, facet joint osteoarthritis towards the development of stenosis, lumbar spondylosis, loss of spinal curve, or development of excessive spinal curve, is in large part, due to facet joint capsular ligament injury and is the cause of almost every chronic spinal pain.

Identifying spinal instability in nonspecific back pain

Spinal instability begins when the stabilizing structures of the spine, the spinal ligaments, can no longer hold adjacent bones together. When present, this is termed mechanical instability.

The term functional instability is used when mechanical instability causes symptoms with a certain function or activity.

Chronic back pain is caused by difficulty in understanding what is causing it.

Researchers in Germany writing in the medical journal Clinical Rheumatology (22) discussed the problems of assessing the true cause of back pain. To summarize their findings, the researchers noted that:

In our opinion, most health care providers rely too heavily on diagnostic tests, especially for low back problems.  Consequently, many who suffer from low back pain do not find relief.

The typical scenario is as follows:

  1. A person complains to a physician about low back pain that radiates down the leg.
  2. The physician orders x-rays and an MRI.
  3. The scan reveals an abnormality in the disc—such as a herniated, bulging, or degenerated disc.
  4. Unfortunately for the patient, this finding usually has nothing to do with the pain.

Diagnosing lumbar instability & treatment with Prolotherapy, PRP, cortisone, nerve blocks

Ross Hauser, MD and Danielle Matias, PA-C discuss the types of cases we see at Caring Medical Florida for low back pain and spinal instability.

The problem of treatments for lumbar spinal instability is the subject of numerous medical research papers.

The problem of treatments for lumbar spinal instability is the subject of numerous medical research papers. An August 2021 study published in The Spine Journal (1) led by researchers at the Department of Orthopaedics and Physical Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina; Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School; Tufts University School of Medicine selected 131 different patient scenarios and presented them to doctors for a possible recommendation of treatments. The Main diagnosis these scenarios centered on was lumbar spondylolisthesis.

Here are some of the learning points of this research:

Caring Medical published research

In December 2021, we published our peer review paper Lumbar instability as an etiology of low back pain and its treatment by prolotherapy: A review in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation. (2) Here in this article we present a lay version with explanatory notes.

Aren’t degenerated discs the problem of low back pain?

Most people experience some form of back pain by the time they reach middle age. However, athletes who participate in twisting sports such as golf, tennis, and bowling, due to the forces exerted during their sports, are more at risk for developing osteoarthritis of the spine. Other athletes experience repeated strain on the back due to postures, such as backpacking and hiking. We cannot forget, however, the constant poor posture of most Americans as they sit at their desks, and slouch on their couches, all the while face down into their computers or mobile devices.

A good portion of the population suffers from daily back pain and ends up choosing back surgery in hopes of alleviating the pain. Unfortunately, many patients are left with even more pain because the surgery that was supposed to strengthen the weak area actually ended up weakening the area to the point that the non-surgerized back was actually stronger. Degeneration occurs in the back due to a weakening of the support structures. Left untreated, this leads to osteoarthritis with accompanying pain and stiffness.

Aren’t degenerated discs the problem? The intervertebral disc is a major component contributing to segmental stability as well as a major load-bearing structure. However, disc abnormalities that occur in osteoarthritis are not associated with pain. Many patients and athletes are distressed at being told that they are suffering from one or more degenerated discs. Disc degeneration occurs as age advances, but often causes no pain. Thus the other structures in the back are causing the problem.

The spinal ligaments are the focus of this article – not the muscles – not the discs

In this image, we see the posterior or rear view of the spine showing the ligaments (white) and nerves (yellow). Most spinal nerve entrapments (radiculopathy) as we will see in the research below can be traced to spinal instability caused by ligament injury.

Most spinal nerve entrapments (radiculopahy) can be traced to spinal instability caused by ligament injury.

The most common cause of unresolved chronic back pain is spinal instability. People who have low back (lumbar) pain know that rest, pain medications, trigger point shots, manipulation, and massage may be helpful, but they did not long-term alleviate their pain. Common sense tells us that if chronic lumbar pain were simply and only a muscle problem, anyone could sit in a hot tub for two hours or get a long massage and they would be cured of their pain. But we know this does not occur. Those therapies only help temporarily. The underlying cause of the chronic pain is not the muscles themselves but rather muscle spasms brought on by ligament laxity. Since over 90% of the injuries to any one of the over 900 ligaments in the body cannot be seen on conventional x-ray or MRI, patients are not told that the reason for their chronic low back pain is facet joint instability from ligament laxity. Spinal instability, in large part, is due to facet joint capsular ligament injury and is the cause of almost every chronic spinal pain.

More specifically, in the instance of low back pain, injury to the sacroiliac ligaments typically occurs from bending over and twisting with the knees in a locked, extended position. This maneuver stretches the sacroiliac ligaments, placing them in a vulnerable position. The ligaments are white (poor blood supply), and they are very unlikely to heal on their own, especially in chronic back pain, yet are incredibly important for spinal stability and movement.

The supraspinatus and interspinous ligaments go from vertebra to vertebra. The iliolumbar ligaments attach along the ilium to the sacrum (sacroiliac ligaments). Cumulative injury (without repair) over years of sports or improper movement can result in small tears in these ligaments. Often healing never occurs and people report “chronic nagging back pain.” Since the ligaments do not heal, the intervertebral discs do not have the support they need. Instability and ligament laxity with resultant instability cause chronic low back pain.

Thus, spending a lot of time and money on therapies that work the surrounding muscles is only going to produce a temporary benefit.  Patients with back pain frequently complain about muscle tightness, spasms, or feeling like the SI might “give out.” They focus so much on the muscles (workout harder, stretch more, get more massage, etc…), that they ignore or do not know why the muscles got that way is due to overcompensation for the lack of stability in the ligaments that hold the lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints in place.

What makes the spine stable? What makes the spine unstable?

The spine is held together and made stable by the intervertebral discs and the surrounding ligaments and muscles, with the discs and ligaments providing the spine with its natural function and stability, and the muscles, extrinsic (outer) support. In the lumbar spine, there are usually 5 vertebrae (L1–L5); rarely. The lower back is formed by the lumbar spine and the beginning of the sacral spine (S1), which is why it is important to examine the sacroiliac joints when a patient complains of persistent low back pain.

The Denis model (a means to help classify injury to the spine) divides the spine into 3 columns.

The anterior longitudinal ligament

The posterior longitudinal ligament

The ligamentum flavum, and the interconnecting ligaments of the posterior spine

How much column injury is considered enough to cause spinal instability?

What are we seeing in this image? The columns of the spine and the areas where spinal instability may occur.

At the front of the spine facing forward are:

At the back of the spinal column, we see the components of the third column of the Denis spinal injury model with a focus on the interconnecting ligaments of the posterior elements.

What are we seeing in this image? The columns of the spine and the areas where spinal instability may occur.

Degenerative disc disease or chronic back problems typically do not begin immediately after a traumatic injury but instead begin to develop once ligaments start to creep (tendency to slowly elongate and become loose and lax) after prolonged stretching. (The ligaments are like rubber bands. Over time the rubber band through continuous hyper-stretching becomes stretched out. This creeping behavior is the result of the forward motions engrained in the human lifestyle. Our days are spent in physically demanding activities or in sedentary postures that can lead to gradual loosening of the posterior ligamentous complex (PLC) over time.

Symptoms of worsening lumbar spinal instability

I have been diagnosed with lumbar stenosis. I have terrible pain in my lower back, buttocks, and upper thighs. Especially when I stand.  I have a stability problem in my back and with my ability to balance myself from tipping over. If I fall, I cannot get up. I have diminished leg strength and now need a cane or a walker to get myself around. I have had this going on for 20 years. Most recently the problem has accelerated. I have had physical therapy and epidural injection.

Mechanical and functional spinal instability

What are we seeing in this image? The caption reads: Almost all chronic pain in the lower back occurs in a six-by-four-inch area. Pain in the lower back occurs in the area where the lumbar vertebrae join the sacrum and the iliac crest.

Almost all chronic pain in the lower back occurs in a six-by-four inch area. Pain in the lower back occurs in the area where the lumbar vertebrae join the sacrum and the iliac crest.

Ninety-five percent of low back pain is located in a six-by-four-inch area, the weakest link in the vertebral-pelvis complex.

At the end of the spine, four structures connect in a very small space, which happens to be a six-by-four-inch area. The fifth lumbar vertebra connects with the base of the sacrum. This is held together by the lumbosacral ligaments. The sacrum is connected on its sides to the ilium and iliac crest. This is held together by the sacroiliac ligaments. The lumbar vertebrae are held to the iliac crest and ilium by the iliolumbar ligaments.

Lumbar instability begins when the stabilizing structures of the spine, especially the ligaments can no longer hold adjacent bones together. When present, this is termed mechanical instability. The term functional instability is used when mechanical instability causes symptoms with a certain function or activity (like those described above). Many people are walking around with mechanical instability but are asymptomatic because the force required to perform current normal activities is not beyond the ligaments and muscles’ ability and strength to perform these functions.

Problems develop when mechanical instability worsens when patients overdo an activity or start a new exercise program. Thus the patient may have symptoms only when performing a certain activity, such as back pain with running. From the patient’s perspective, pain symptoms do not exist during any other activities. This is called functional spinal instability with running and mechanical instability of the entire low back.

Functional instability, or symptomatic instability with movement, occurs with mechanical failure of the spinal ligaments and the subsequent excessive motion of adjacent bones. This can be caused by trauma, disease, surgery, or any combination thereof to one or more regions of the spine.

What then are the overriding effects of a gradual loosening of the ligaments in the lower back?

Our bodies are remarkably intuitive in sensing when something has gone awry, especially when it concerns a vital structure like the spine, and respond by adopting other measures to maintain the spine’s stability.

When the cause of low back pain is misdiagnosed or not identified – inappropriate treatment follows

When the cause of the person’s low back pain is unknown, or a person is given an inaccurate diagnosis, unnecessary spinal surgeries or other invasive procedures are more likely to occur, (please see my articles Can you realistically avoid lumbar surgery for bulging or herniated disc?Is your MRI or CT Scan sending you to a back surgery you do not need?) and the overuse of opioids and imaging will continue to be a widespread problem. Diagnosing a person’s low back pain can be difficult to determine since the lumbar spine, like the body itself, consists of many components capable of generating pain and does so via a set of complex pain patterns.

Although many treatments and interventions have been explored for disc degeneration, all have had drawbacks. Treatment options such as pain medications, steroid injections, discectomies, and spinal fusion surgeries only address symptoms but do little to stop the degeneration process. Regenerative medicine, including cellular therapies, focuses instead on the biological repair or regeneration of the disc and surrounding facet joints, posterior ligaments, etc. This has many advantages over current therapies and regenerative treatments that are coming of age in the treatment of discogenic back pain. These therapies include non-cellular and cellular prolotherapy (mesenchymal stem cells or bone marrow aspirate, PRP (please see my article Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy and lower back pain) and offer the most promise, as they have the potential to provide meaningful pain relief and functional restoration to the spinal ligaments and discs.

Prolotherapy injections

The main theme of this article is treating low back pain with Prolotherapy. So let’s begin with an explanation of Prolotherapy.

Prolotherapy is a regenerative injection treatment that uses various injectable biological substances to initiate an inflammatory healing cascade, mimicking the body’s own response to repairing musculoskeletal injuries.

Prolotherapy treatments are broadly divided into three types of injectables

While these different methods of Prolotherapy can be used to treat lumbar instability and its consequent pain syndromes, the administered treatment should be tailored to each individual patient, depending upon confirmation of their diagnosis and primary pain generator. Pain sources include the lumbar facet joints and their capsular ligaments, over-pressured or deranged intervertebral discs resulting from lumbar instability, and sacroiliac and iliolumbar ligaments.

Prolotherapy injections

Prolotherapy strengthens the lumbar vertebral ligaments and prevents the progressive degeneration that occurs with age to the intervertebral discs. A patient with chronic low back pain is typically treated with Prolotherapy injections into the insertions of the lumbosacral, iliolumbar, and sacroiliac ligaments. The initial assessment may reveal that the chronic low back pain and referred leg pain may be caused by a referred pain from other areas such as the pubic symphysis, hip joint, ischial tuberosity, sacrospinous, and sacrotuberous ligaments. Therefore, these areas are also examined.

In a paper published in the Journal of Prolotherapy, (3) doctors offered a case study series as to how Prolotherapy injections might be advantageous in the management of discogenic low back pain through improving vertebral segmental stability. This is achieved by addressing damage to the spinal ligaments. The authors noted: “In comparison to other soft tissues, ligaments have less vascularity. Once injured or degenerated, this lack of blood supply may delay healing. Prolotherapy may offer the stimulus for ligament regeneration. However, without a program of lumbar stabilization exercises, it is likely to be less effective in directing the healing tissues to become more organized, flexible, and less prone to re-injury. Therefore, rehabilitative exercise is an essential component to achieve a maximum stabilization effect.”

A December 2021 paper in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation (4) comes to us from the University of Health Sciences in Ankara, Turkey. These are the learning points of this research.

Note: One aspect of this research was the use of numbing agents as a diagnostic tool to pre-assess if Prolotherapy would be effective. It should be noted that while Prolotherapy treatments reduced the Visual Analogue Scale from 7.2 severe pain to mild to almost no pain on average in 94.8% of patients, numbing agents injected only reduced pain in the same group from 7.2 severe pain to 5.1 or a grade of moderate to severe pain.

Another aspect was the amount of dextrose given in the injection. Prolotherapy injections can come in varying amounts of dextrose concentration. Here a more modest 5% dextrose solution was used to great effect. The concentration of dextrose in Prolotherapy injections can range from 5% to 25%, we prefer the lower ranges.


Targeting the facet joints of the spine

In the illustration below we see normal capsular ligaments at the facet joint, the joint between two vertebrae. When the capsular ligaments at the facet joint are injured, stretched, or loose, the integrity of the spinal column is compromised and the vertebrae start wandering around. This results in the flattening of the disc and a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease. This is demonstrated in the bottom half of the illustration where we see the damage to the capsular ligaments resulting in hypermobility of the facet joint or gapping fact joint that is now flattening the disc.

The lumbar facet capsular ligament is always under tension and likely always being stretched.

In June 2022 (5) researchers at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Minnesota offered an examination and assessment of the lumbar facet capsular ligament. They write: “(the lumbar facet capsular ligament) which surrounds and limits the motion of each facet joint in the lumbar spine, has been recognized as being mechanically significant and has been the subject of multiple mechanical characterization studies in the past. Those studies, however, were performed on isolated tissue samples and thus could not assess the mechanical state of the ligament in vivo. . . )” In other words, understanding the lumbar facet capsular ligament was based on small tissue samples studied in a laboratory. In this study, the researchers performed cadaveric studies to show increases in pressure and strain. What they found, based on testing the ligaments and on the work of previous studies was  that the lumbar facet capsular ligaments are in tension and that the collagen in the ligament is likely uncrimped (stretched) even when the spine is not loaded.”

The lumbar spine is considered unstable if abnormal strains or excessive motion develop in the functional spinal unit

The facet joints are considered crucial stabilizers of the spine because they play an important role in load transmission, acting as the posterior load-bearing component for stabilizing the motion segment in flexion (bending forward) and extension (bending backward) while restricting axial rotation (turning to the side). Together with the intervertebral disc, the facet joints transfer loads and guide and constrain motions in the spine.

The lumbar spine is considered unstable if abnormal strains or excessive motion develop in the functional spinal unit, a structure that contains the bodies of the upper and lower vertebrae and the disc between them, as well as the facet joints, which join the vertebrae together. The functional spinal unit is surrounded by ligaments, including the posterior ligament complex (the ligaments demonstrated in the illustration above) which are crucial for maintaining spinal stability. This includes the posterior longitudinal ligament, supraspinous ligament, interspinous ligament, ligamentum flavum, and facet capsule ligaments. The roles of the posterior ligament complex are to limit excess motion and resist bending and compressive forces. This second function is particularly important, as demonstrated in a study that found intradiscal pressure increases greatly during sitting, lifting, or forward-leaning, alone or with twisting, the latter of which involves shear forces that the posterior ligament complex is ill-equipped to handle. All these motions were found to trigger the loading of such forces onto the posterior ligament complex [6,7].

The facet joints are where the bones of the spine meet and connect to form the spinal column. Functionally, they are the joints that allow the spine to bend and twist. They also hold the spine in place so you do not “bend over backward.” The nerves of the spinal cord pass through these joints. If the facet joint is compromised or in a state of degenerative disc disease, the familiar numbness and pain extending into the arms and legs can be seen.

For our companion article please see Facet Joint Osteoarthritis and Facet Arthropathy Treatments.

What are we seeing in this image?

The facet joint is at the rear of the vertebrae. The small arrows pointing away from each other in the first image and the small arrows pointing toward each other in the second image are at the point of the facet joints. What is that spring in the back? The spring represents forces.

Spinal force transmission, which some people call strain on the back, is represented by the various motions of the spine. A flexion, bending forward causes the posterior or back portion of the disc to bulge outwards and the facet joint and the “tail” or protrusion of the vertebrae, the spinous process, to pull away from each other. The opposite happens with extension, bending backward. The same forces apply to banding to the side at the waist.

Spinal force transmission, some people call it strain on the back, are represented with the various motions of the spine. A flexion, bending forward causes the posterior or back portion of the disc to bulge outwards and the fact joint and the "tail" or protrusion of the vertebrae, the spinous process, to pull away from each other. The opposite happens with extension, bending backwards. The same forces apply to banding to the side at the waist.

When the ligaments of the posterior ligament complex – bend too far and that is painful

Should the posterior ligament complex become injured or unable to resist those forces, the lumbar disc would become a pain generator. Other important ligaments surrounding the functional spinal unit are the intertransverse ligament, the anterior longitudinal ligament, and the posterior longitudinal ligament.

Studies have evaluated the effects when various ligaments of the posterior ligament complex become dysfunctional. For instance, the removal of the facet joint capsular ligaments in the lower lumbar spine causes a large increase in pressure within an otherwise healthy lumbar disc, which we discussed above and demonstrated in the illustration, damage to the ligaments causes the disc to bulge, and cutting these ligaments in the upper lumbar spine causes an increase in a side-to-side bending motion, simply you bend too far.

What are we seeing in this image?

While the lumbar disc and the facet joints are both common pain generators, the facet joint capsular ligaments are arguably the most critical starting point in the development of lower back disorders. This is so because their injury would result in increases in shear forces (side-to-side motion), thereby increasing the likelihood that instability would occur, along with subsequent facet joints and lumbar disc degeneration. It should be noted that the facet joints and interspinous ligaments are the first to be injured under degenerative conditions.

While the lumbar disc and the facet joints are both common pain generators, the facet joint capsular ligaments are arguably the most critical starting point in the development of lower back disorders. This is so because their injury would result in increases in shear forces (side-to-side motion), thereby increasing the likelihood that instability would occur, along with subsequent facet joints and lumbar disc degeneration. It should be noted that the facet joints and interspinous ligaments are the first to be injured under degenerative conditions

Prolotherapy to target this problem – research is limited

Although facet joint pain can account for up to 45% of low back pain, there are few randomized controlled studies in the literature on the use of comprehensive or cellular prolotherapy for treating this type of pain. Narrative review studies (where the authors interpret previously published medical works) and systemic reviews (where the authors combine data and empirical evidence from previously published medical works), as well as meta-analysis (authors rely on data outcomes), noted overall positive results, especially with cellular (PRP and/or Mesenchymal stem cells prolotherapy but mixed with dextrose prolotherapy for chronic low back pain [8, 9]. Currently, standard medical care remains focused on masking facet joint pain instead of diagnosing and treating the real cause, which is joint instability. Historically, treatment options have included oral NSAIDs and physical therapy, as well as more invasive interventions such as facet joint corticosteroid injections, diagnostic nerve blocks to the facet joints, and radiofrequency ablation of the sensory nerves supplying the joints if the diagnostic block is positive.

Summary and Learning Points of Prolotherapy to the low back

What are we seeing in this image?

Normal enthesis vs. enthesopathy from joint instability and aging. The entheses organ (the whole soft tissue) is the place where ligaments attach to bone. Increased forces (abnormal stress as in conditions of instability and spine or joint) on the entheses cause them to thicken and with continued joint forces, entheses inflammation, causing a lot of pain.

What we see in this image is:

  1. Normal attachments of sot-tissue to the bone, normal enthesis.
  2. Age-related thickened enthesis. The thickening or scarring of the enthesis occurs because of chronic inflammation in the area.
  3. This progresses to long-standing joint instability with inflamed enthesis and diffuse bone edema.
  4. This progresses to enthesopathy, the diagnosis of inflammation and degenerative disease in the spine.
  5. Eventually, degenerative spine or disc disease develops into arthritis, the development of bone spurs along the spine, and a flattening of the disc as outlined above.

Normal enthesis vs. enthesopathy from joint instability and aging.

Prolotherapy and PRP for facet joint pain

A single-blind, randomized, crossover study evaluated the effectiveness of injection therapy in 35 patients diagnosed as having painful enthesopathy (these are painful conditions caused by the ligament or tendon attachment to the bone). (10)

In this study, 86% of patients had prior spinal surgery and continued pain.

Outcomes following prolotherapy treatment

Degenerated discs produce a pain that is typically resistant to steroids, intra-discal electrothermoplasty, (or IDET used to treat lumbar discogenic pain, and direct surgical intervention, while also being difficult to resolve. However, exposure of irritated nerves to hypertonic dextrose prolotherapy is thought to have chemoneuromodulatory (in simplest terms works as an anti-inflammatory in nerve-related pain) potential.

Sustained pain reduction has been demonstrated in a prospective consecutive patient series in which the effects of disc space injections of hypertonic dextrose were assessed in patients with chronic advanced degenerative discogenic leg pain, with or without low back pain, including those with moderate to severe disc degeneration and concordant pain reproduction with CT discography. In this 2006 study published in the journal Pain Medicine (11) patients underwent bi-weekly disc space injections of a solution consisting of 50% dextrose and 0.25% bupivacaine in the affected disc(s). Each patient was injected an average of 3.5 times. Overall, 43.4% of patients achieved sustained improvement as shown by average changes in numeric pain scores of 71% between pretreatment and 18-month measurements. The authors concluded that intradiscal injection of hypertonic dextrose has promise as a treatment for managing the pain of advanced lumbar disc degeneration.

Returning to the research we cited above, in a retrospective case series of 21 patients with MRI-confirmed lumbar disc degeneration and refractory low back pain/non-radicular low back pain, 18 (86%) of patients experienced 70% or greater improvements in pain and function (3) at 1-year follow up. Patients underwent 3 Prolotherapy treatment sessions at 1–3 weeks apart, which included injections at the ligament-periosteal junctions at the origin and insertion of the posterior sacroiliac ligaments, iliolumbar ligaments, facet joint capsules, and supraspinous and interspinous ligaments (all bilaterally). Injections were done under fluoroscopic guidance.

A small case series of 4 patients (12) with low back pain also proved successful in treating those with disc herniations with Prolotherapy. Patients underwent 3–9 Prolotherapy sessions to the ligaments of the low back (almost all 1 month apart) with all patients experiencing 95–100% pain relief and an increase in function, including the ability to return to work.

Physical therapy can help highly obese patients

A January 2021 study (13) in the journal Medicine comes from the Department of Physical Therapy, Daejeon University in Korea. In this research, the therapists wrote that intensive neuromuscular stabilization exercise on highly obese patients with low back pain results in positive effects of body fat decline (weight loss) and prevention of complications. Further a more progressive neuromuscular stabilization exercise (exercises that concentrate on muscle strength) on unstable surfaces (areas of instability) on pain, motor function, psychosocial factors, balance, and abdominal contraction with highly obese patients with lumbar instability.

Please see our article Weight loss can reduce back pain for a more detailed discussion on the benefits and motivation for weight loss in the treatment of lumbar instability and back pain.

Sacroiliac joint-mediated pain

Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, doctors found positive clinical outcomes for 76% of patients with sacroiliac joint problems. (14) This study was conducted to determine whether Prolotherapy is effective in the treatment of deficient load transfer of the sacroiliac joint in 25 patients. In this study, 3 injections at 6-week intervals of a hypertonic dextrose solution were given into the dorsal interosseous ligament of the affected sacroiliac joint of each patient. Outcome measures standard test scoring to determine pain and function as well as an independent clinical examination by the paper’s two authors. The authors concluded that their descriptive study of Prolotherapy in private practice showed positive clinical outcomes for the 76% of patients who attended the 3-month follow-up visit (76% at 12 months and 32% at 24 months).

A 2010 paper published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (15) compared the pain relief effects of Prolotherapy to corticosteroid injection. At 15 months, 58% of the patients treated with Prolotherapy reported that more than half of their pain was relieved, which was statistically significant compared with only 10% in the corticosteroid group who reported that same level of pain relief. The researchers here concluded: “Intra-articular Prolotherapy provided significant relief of sacroiliac joint pain, and its effects lasted longer than those of steroid injections. Further studies are needed to confirm the safety of the procedure and to validate an appropriate injection protocol.”

An earlier study in the Journal of Spine Disorders (16) demonstrated that for patients with chronic low back pain who had failed to respond to previous conservative care Prolotherapy could be an effective treatment. Patients were randomly assigned to receive a double-blind series of 6 injections at weekly intervals of either a xylocaine/proliferant or a xylocaine/saline solution into the posterior sacroiliac and interspinous ligaments, fascia, and joint capsules of the lower back from L4 to the sacrum. Of the 39 patients assigned to the proliferant group, 30 achieved a 50% or greater reduction in both pain and disability scores at 6 months compared with 21 of 40 in the group receiving the saline solution. The proliferant group also achieved greater improvements on the visual analog, pain, and disability scales.

In a 2004 (17) audit of conservative treatments for low back pain, patients who were diagnosed with sacroiliac pain via diagnostic block were treated either by corticosteroid injection to the sacroiliac joint or by Prolotherapy to the sacroiliac ligaments. Long-term improvement was assessed at 6 months, after which 63% of the Prolotherapy group reported a substantial drop in pain severity compared with only 33% in the corticosteroid group.

PRP injections

A study (18) into the use of PRP for facet joint pain examined the results of guided injections of PRP into the lumbar facet joints of 19 patients. The study found that PRP had beneficial effects which improved over time, with 15 of the 19 patients experiencing significant pain reduction by 3 months.

In a subsequent randomized prospective study with a larger cohort of 46 subjects, the same lead author (19) compared the results of facet joint injections using either PRP or anesthetic and corticosteroid. At the 1-month mark, 80% of subjects in the corticosteroid group were satisfied with the results of the procedure, but this declined to between 20% and 50% after 6 months. Conversely, the subjects in the PRP group had increased satisfaction over time, leading the authors to conclude that PRP was the superior treatment. As the facet joint capsular ligaments loosen, the spinal segments begin to flex (bend forward) more, though imperceptibly to us, when a person leans forward, sits, or lifts. Over time, this results in several possible adaptations, the first of which is disc degeneration.

The use of PRP for treating musculoskeletal conditions is growing, and studies specific to sacroiliac-mediated pain have found that PRP provides favorable outcomes. In one randomized, controlled trial of PRP versus corticosteroid injection, 90% of subjects treated with PRP to the sacroiliac joint were satisfied at the 3-month follow-up compared with only 25% of those who were treated with the steroid. The researchers concluded “Despite the widespread use of steroids to treat sacroiliac joint pain, their duration of pain reduction is short. Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) can potentially enhance tissue healing and may have a longer-lasting effect on pain.”(20).

What are we seeing in this image?

The progression of degeneration in the lower back starts with an initial injury to one or more spinal ligaments. Over time, the process progresses to involve more spinal segments. Eventually, unresolved spinal instability can cause multi-level degeneration of the lumbar spine.

The progression of degeneration in the lower back starts with an initial injury to one or more spinal ligaments. Over time, the process progresses to involve more spinal segments. Eventually, unresolved spinal instability can cause multi-level degeneration of the lumbar spine.

In an editorial, a board-certified physician in family medicine whose specialty is pain management made several points about the treatment of low back pain with Prolotherapy (21).

The longer you wait to treat your back pain, the worse your situation becomes

Recent research from doctors at the University of Sydney published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association says the faster you get treatment for your back pain, the sooner you will get pain relief. That seems obvious.

Now they do not specify a specific treatment, only that in their examination of the medical literature, patients who got treatment sooner had a better chance for pain relief and that any treatment would be preferable to none. These treatments could include chiropractic, yoga, therapy, epidurals, etc.

Here is what the Australian team suggested:

“Patients who presented with acute or persistent low-back pain improved markedly in the first six weeks (of treatment). After that time, improvement slowed. Low to moderate levels of pain and disability were still present at one year.”(23)

Again, this is based on any treatment, improvement seen in the first six weeks then the level of improvement declines based on what type of treatments you get.

The point of this research again was to suggest that people get treatment because it will help them short-term.

Summary

Above we cited our own 2021 research: Lumbar instability as an etiology of low back pain and its treatment by prolotherapy. This was not the onl;y time we presented research on the subject of low back pain. In 2009 our researchers at Caring Medical investigated the outcomes of patients undergoing dextrose Prolotherapy treatment for chronic low back pain. You can read the entire paper here: Dextrose Prolotherapy for Unresolved Low Back Pain: A Retrospective Case Series Study.

We looked at 145 patients, who had been in pain an average of four years and ten months, and were treated quarterly with Prolotherapy.

Patients were contacted an average of 12 months following their last Prolotherapy session and asked questions regarding their levels of pain, physical and psychological symptoms, and activities of daily living, before and after their last Prolotherapy treatment.

Results:

In summary, Prolotherapy can be an effective treatment for chronic back pain due to spinal instability. Some telltale signs that you have spinal instability include chronic muscle spasms, pain that shoots down the legs intermittently, your spine cracks and pops, and you feel the need to manipulate your spine or receive frequent adjustments and massages.

The true source of pain is due to ligament weakness. The causes can be many, such as traumatic or over time due to poor posture or overuse. Either way, it is a ligament problem. Prolotherapy strengthens ligaments and eliminates chronic back pain in conditions such as degenerated discs, herniated discs, spondylolisthesis, post-surgery pain syndromes, arachnoiditis, and scoliosis. The most common cause of chronic low back pain and “sciatica” is the laxity of the sacroiliac ligaments. For many people, Prolotherapy should be considered before any surgical procedure is performed for chronic back pain.

Given the widespread prevalence of spinal disorders, clinicians should understand ligaments as a causative factor for lumbar spinal instability resulting in chronic and worsening low back pain. Degenerative spine conditions are initiated by the development of instability within the posterior ligament complex, most notably the facet joint capsular ligaments. In response, the body makes adaptations trying to stabilize the spine, which is initially protective but eventually becomes harmful (e.g., bone spurs). Without addressing the instability, the progression of degenerative spinal conditions with low back pain will continue.

Clinically speaking, spinal stability is the ability of the spine to maintain its alignment during loading and to protect the neural structures it encloses without causing pain. It is the collective job of the bones, muscles, discs, and ligaments to maintain their alignment of the spinal column, so the spinal cord and nerves remain protected. If the spine no longer has properly functioning biomechanical properties, however, clinical stability is lost, giving rise to spinal instability and pain. Prolotherapy is a regenerative treatment option for those suffering from low back pain and associated conditions related to joint and spinal instability. Regenerative treatment of injured ligaments has the potential and ability to strengthen the posterior ligament complex, and thus relieve both chronic and acute low back pain.

Questions about our treatments?

If you have questions about your pain and how we may be able to help you, please contact us and get help and information from our Caring Medical staff.

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References

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This article was December 4, 2022
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