Chronic low back pain is a major cause of disability and health care costs. Current treatments are inadequate for many patients. A number of preclinical models have been developed that attempt to mimic aspects of clinical conditions that contribute to low back pain. These involve application of nucleus pulposus material near the lumbar dorsal root ganglia (DRG), chronic compression of the DRG, or localized inflammation of the DRG. These models, which are primarily implemented in rats, have many common features including behavioral hypersensitivity of the hindpaw, enhanced excitability and spontaneous activity of sensory neurons, and locally elevated levels of inflammatory mediators including cytokines. Clinically, epidural injection of steroids (glucocorticoids) is commonly used when more conservative treatments fail, but clinical trials evaluating these treatments have yielded mixed results. There are relatively few preclinical studies of steroid effects in low back pain models. One preclinical study suggests that the mineralocorticoid receptor, also present in the DRG, may have pro-inflammatory effects that oppose the activation of the glucocorticoid receptor. Although the glucocorticoid receptor is the target of anti-inflammatory steroids, many clinically used steroids activate both receptors. This could be one explanation for the limited effects of epidural steroids in some patients. Additional preclinical research is needed to address other possible reasons for limited efficacy of steroids, such as central sensitization or presence of an ongoing inflammatory stimulus in some forms of low back pain.
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