BACKGROUND: Low back pain exerts a tremendous burden on individual patients and society due to its prevalence and ability to cause long-term disability. Contemporary treatment and prevention efforts are stymied by the absence of a confirmed cause for the majority of low back pain patients. METHODS: A system dynamics approach is used to build a physiologically-based model investigating the relationship between disc degeneration and low back pain. The model's predictions are evaluated under two different types of study designs and compared with established observations on low back pain. RESULTS: A three-compartment model (no disc degeneration, disc degeneration with pain remission, disc degeneration with pain recurrence) accurately predicts the age-specific prevalence observed in one of the largest population-based surveys (R (2) = 0.998). The estimated transition age at which intervertebral discs lose the growth potential and begin degenerating is 13.3 years. The estimated disc degeneration rate is 0.0344/year. Without any additional change being made to parameter's values, the model also fully accounts for the age-specific prevalence of disc degeneration detected with a lumbar MRI among asymptomatic individuals (R (2) = 0.978). CONCLUSIONS: Dual testing of the proposed mechanistic model with two independent data sources (one with lumbar MRI and the other without) confirm that disc degeneration is the driving force behind and cause of age dependence in low back pain. Observed complexity of low back pain epidemiology arises from the slow dynamics of disc degeneration coupled with the fast dynamics of disease recurrence.
Zheng, C. J., & Chen, J. (2015). Disc degeneration implies low back pain. Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12976-015-0020-3