Recently, there has been both immense interest and controversy regarding a randomised, controlled trial which showed antibiotics to be effective in the treatment of chronic low back pain (disc herniation with Modic Type 1 change). While this research has the potential to result in a paradigm shift in the treatment of low back pain, several questions remain unanswered. This systematic review aims to address these questions by examining the role of bacteria in low back pain and the relationship between bacteria and Modic change.
We conducted electronic searches of MEDLINE and EMBASE and included studies that examined the relationship between bacteria and back pain or Modic change. Studies were rated based on their methodological quality, a best-evidence synthesis was used to summarise the results, and Bradford Hill's criteria were used to assess the evidence for causation.
Eleven studies were identified. The median (range) age and percentage of female participants was 44.7 (41-46.4) years and 41.5% (27-59%), respectively, and in 7 of the 11 studies participants were diagnosed with disc herniation. Nine studies examined the presence of bacteria in spinal disc material and all identified bacteria, with the pooled estimate of the proportion with positive samples being 34%. Propionibacterium acnes was the most prevalent bacteria, being present in 7 of the 9 studies, with median (minimum, maximum) 45.0% (0-86.0) of samples positive. The best evidence synthesis found moderate evidence for a relationship between the presence of bacteria and both low back pain with disc herniation and Modic Type 1 change with disc herniation. There was modest evidence for a cause-effect relationship.
We found that bacteria were common in the spinal disc material of people undergoing spinal surgery. There was moderate evidence for a relationship between the presence of bacteria and both low back pain with disc herniation and Modic Type 1 change associated with disc herniation and modest evidence for causation. However, further work is needed to determine whether these organisms are a result of contamination or represent low grade infection of the spine which contributes to chronic low back pain.
Modic type 1 changes/bone edema in the vertebrae are present in 6 % of the general population and 35-40 % of the low back pain population. It is strongly associated with low back pain. The aim was to test the efficacy of antibiotic treatment in patients with chronic low back pain (>6 months) and Modic type 1 changes (bone edema).
The study was a double-blind RCT with 162 patients whose only known illness was chronic LBP of greater than 6 months duration occurring after a previous disc herniation and who also had bone edema demonstrated as Modic type 1 changes in the vertebrae adjacent to the previous herniation. Patients were randomized to either 100 days of antibiotic treatment (Bioclavid) or placebo and were blindly evaluated at baseline, end of treatment and at 1-year follow-up.
Primary outcome, disease-specific disability, lumbar pain. Secondary outcome leg pain, number of hours with pain last 4 weeks, global perceived health, EQ-5D thermometer, days with sick leave, bothersomeness, constant pain, magnetic resonance image (MRI).
144 of the 162 original patients were evaluated at 1-year follow-up. The two groups were similar at baseline. The antibiotic group improved highly statistically significantly on all outcome measures and improvement continued from 100 days follow-up until 1-year follow-up. At baseline, 100 days follow-up, 1-year follow-up the disease-specific disability-RMDQ changed: antibiotic 15, 11, 5.7; placebo 15, 14, 14. Leg pain: antibiotics 5.3, 3.0, 1.4; placebo 4.0, 4.3, 4.3. Lumbar pain: antibiotics 6.7, 5.0, 3.7; placebo 6.3, 6.3, 6.3. For the outcome measures, where a clinically important effect size was defined, improvements exceeded the thresholds, and a trend towards a dose-response relationship with double dose antibiotics being more efficacious.
The antibiotic protocol in this study was significantly more effective for this group of patients (CLBP associated with Modic I) than placebo in all the primary and secondary outcomes.