Goal of the review?
In this review 1, the authors focus on recent advances in understanding the nociceptive and neuropathic components of pain, as well as treatments for skeletal pain.
Why are they doing this review?
Skeletal pain neurobiology is widely prevalent and has a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life and the broader society, as it is a leading cause of work disability. For this reason, the authors argue that understanding the mechanism that drives skeletal pain is critical to the prevent and treat pain.
What did they find?
Primary afferent sensory nerve fibres that innervate the skeleton
Unlike the skin innervated by various sensory nerve fibres, including A-beta, A-delta, C-fibers and others, the adult skeleton (bone and joint) is predominantly innervated TfkA+ sensory nerve fibres and CGRP.
While the same nociceptive nerve fibres innervate bone and joint, the density, pattern, and morphology are very different. For example, the periosteum (tissue enveloping the bones) has the largest sensory nerve fibres with A-delta and C-sensory nerve fibres that detect injury or alteration. In contrast, the articular cartilage of the knee and temporomandibular joint lack any innervation by sensory nerve fibres or vascularization by blood vessels. Therefore, it is believed that pain from a joint injury must come from the ligaments, synovium, and muscle.
Skeletal pain is also driven by the innervation of adrenergic and cholinergic sympathetic nerve fibres. Research has shown that these regulate bone destruction, bone formation and more, and therefore may play a significant role in disease progression in cartilage, bone, and skeletal pain.
Additionally, studies have shown that following injury to the skeleton, there is an interaction between sensory and sympathetic nerve fibres that may play a role in OA and complex regional pain syndrome.
Nociceptive and neuropathic components of skeletal pain
Bone fractures and injury to articular cartilage are characterized by sharp stabbing pain and a lesser dull aching pain. Following injury, A-delta and C-fibers in the synovium and subchondral bone are sensitized. Normally non-noxious loading and movement of the joint are perceived as noxious stimuli. However, as articular cartilage lacks innervation, the location of the nerves driving pain is not known. Moreover, there is no clear correlation between the extent of joint destruction and the frequency and severity of joint pain.
Research suggests there may be a neuropathic component in different types of skeletal pain. For example, in some types of cancer pain, the tumour cells destroy the distal ends of sensory nerve fibres that innervate the skeleton, which is then accompanied by an increase in movement-based pain. Another mechanism of neurobiology pain may arise from the sprouting of sensory and sympathetic nerve fibres. In mouse models of bone cancer, the number of nerve fibres per unit increased exponentially in a way not normally seen in bone.
Neurochemical and structural changes to the Central Nervous System (CNS)
Little is known about the mechanisms that drive central sensitization in skeletal pain. However, it is thought to result when chemical, electrophysiological, and pharmacological systems that transmit and modulate pain are changed in the spinal cord and higher brain centers.
Potential treatments for skeletal pain
The authors point out that while analgesics are needed to control pain better, an important therapeutic approach could induce bone or cartilage formation following injury. There are currently two classes of drugs to treat age-related bone loss: antiresorptive and osteoanabolic. However, both classes of drugs have limitations.
Recent findings have outlined several new therapeutic targets for treating bone loss. Two of these inhibitory proteins that show promise are: sclerostin and Dickkopf-1. A Phase 1 study demonstrated that a dose of anti-sclerostin antibody increased bone density in the hip and spine in healthy men and postmenopausal women.
One question the researchers raise is how much neurobiology pain should be relieved. While it is beneficial for cancer patients to have their pain eliminated, the same is not true for patients with skeletal pain due to OA, bone fracture or ageing. The elimination of all pain could lead to overuse and more deterioration. Therefore, finding a treatment that could block pain while at the same time promoting bone formation and healing is critical.
Why do these findings matter?
Understanding the causes of skeletal pain will help lead to more effective and targeted treatments.