Lumbar disc extrusions reduce faster than bulging discs due to an active role of macrophages in sciatica

Acta Neurochirurgica (2020) 162:79–85

This retrospective observational histological study aims to associate the size and type of disc herniation with the degree of macrophage infiltration in disc material retrieved during disc surgery in patients with sciatica.

Methods Disc tissue of 119 sciatica patients was embedded in paraffin and stained with hematoxylin and CD68. Tissue samples were categorized as mild (0–10/cm2), moderate (10–100/cm2), and considerable (> 100/cm2) macrophage infiltration. All 119 patients received an MRI at baseline, and 108 received a follow-up MRI at 1-year. MRIs were reviewed for the size and type of the disc herniations, and for Modic changes in the vertebral endplates.

Results Baseline characteristics and duration of symptoms before surgery were comparable in all macrophage infiltration groups. The degree of macrophage infiltration was not associated with herniation size at baseline, but significantly associated with reduction of size of the herniated disc at 1-year post surgery. Moreover, the degree of macrophage infiltration was higher in extrusion in comparison with bulging (protrusion) of the disc. Results were comparable in patients with and without Modic changes.

Conclusion Macrophage infiltration was positively associated with an extruded type of disc herniation as well as the extent of reduction of the herniated disc during 1-year follow-up in patients with sciatica. This is an indication that the macrophages play an active role in reducing herniated discs. An extruded disc herniation has a larger surface for the macrophages to adhere to, which leads to more size reduction.