Osteoarthritis and intervertebral disc degeneration: Quite different, quite similar

Christine M E Rustenburg, Kaj S Emanuel, Mirte Peeters, Willem F Lems, Pieter-Paul A Vergroesen, Theodoor H Smit*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal(Systematic) Review article peer-review


Intervertebral disc degeneration describes the vicious cycle of the deterioration of intervertebral discs and can eventually result in degenerative disc disease (DDD), which is accompanied by low-back pain, the musculoskeletal disorder with the largest socioeconomic impact world-wide. In more severe stages, intervertebral disc degeneration is accompanied by loss of joint space, subchondral sclerosis, and osteophytes, similar to osteoarthritis (OA) in the articular joint. Inspired by this resemblance, we investigated the analogy between human intervertebral discs and articular joints. Although embryonic origin and anatomy suggest substantial differences between the two types of joint, some features of cell physiology and extracellular matrix in the nucleus pulposus and articular cartilage share numerous parallels. Moreover, there are great similarities in the response to mechanical loading and the matrix-degrading factors involved in the cascade of degeneration in both tissues. This suggests that the local environment of the cell is more important to its behavior than embryonic origin. Nevertheless, OA is widely regarded as a true disease, while intervertebral disc degeneration is often regarded as a radiological finding and DDD is undervalued as a cause of chronic low-back pain by clinicians, patients and society. Emphasizing the similarities rather than the differences between the two diseases may create more awareness in the clinic, improve diagnostics in DDD, and provide cross-fertilization of clinicians and scientists involved in both intervertebral disc degeneration and OA.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e1033
JournalJOR spine
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018
Externally publishedYes

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