A gel made from natural seaweed is currently being tested on patients as a treatment for slipped discs.
Animal studies have shown that, once injected into a damaged disc in the back, the gel hardens in less than five minutes, reducing pain by encouraging the growth of healthy new tissue. Around 40 people are now taking part in the first human trial of the gel.
Up to one in ten of us has chronic back pain, and slipped discs are one of the most common causes, according to the British Pain Society.
The flat, round discs, each about half an inch thick, act as shock absorbers between the spine’s 24 vertebrae.
Each disc consists of a hard outer ring called the annulus fibrosus, and a soft, jelly-like centre called the nucleus pulposus.
A gel made from natural seaweed is currently being tested on patients as a treatment for slipped discs. Animal studies have shown that, once injected into a damaged disc in the back, the gel hardens in less than five minutes
When a disc slips, or herniates, the centre pushes through the ring, causing the disc to bulge. This squeezes nearby nerves, triggering pain and inflammation, and possibly numbness and weakness in the legs.
A slipped disc is most often caused by age-related wear and tear. The water content of discs declines with age and they become less pliable and shrink, increasing the space between the vertebrae — all of which makes the discs more prone to slipping.
Painkillers and physiotherapy can be helpful, but in more severe cases an operation known as a discectomy is needed.
Here, the part of the bulging disc tissue pressing on a nerve is removed under a general anaesthetic. But this can weaken the disc, making it more prone to collapse and herniate again.
Furthermore, poor blood supply limits the ability of the disc pulp to regenerate and fill the space, which can ultimately cause the spine to curve and shrink.
The idea behind the new treatment is to replace the removed tissue with the purified gel based on alginate found in seaweed. This not only fills the space left after the discectomy — preventing further herniation — but has also been designed to stimulate the growth of new tissue, preventing more disc degeneration.
It’s thought that new cells are attracted to the gel because its structure is similar to that of the pulp in the centre of discs.
The gel, known as UPAL, is made from highly purified seaweed by a specialist company in Japan.
In the trial at Hokkaido University Hospital, patients will undergo standard surgery to remove the bulging disc material before doctors inject 2ml of the gel into the remaining space using a syringe.
Animal studies at the same hospital found that not only did the gel lower the risk of subsequent herniation, but it also acted as a scaffold around which new disc tissue grew.
Researchers will use MRI scans to assess the quality of disc tissue six months after the treatment.
Ian Harding, an orthopaedic consultant at North Bristol NHS Trust, says it will be ‘interesting to see the results’, adding: ‘Ongoing degeneration of a disc and further herniation are as-yet unsolved potential problems that can occur after disc herniation.’
A ten-minute procedure using tiny synthetic balls to ‘bulk up’ spinal discs that have shrunk with age could ease back pain.
The spheres — made from polymethyl methacrylate, a material used as a bone cement in surgery and dentistry — are mixed in a solution of hyaluronic acid, a natural joint lubricant, and injected into the disc.
A pilot study in six patients found that the jab resulted in a 42 per cent drop in back pain six months after the procedure.
Researchers from the University of California and other centres said the treatment, called Discseals, may be a future option for those who don’t respond to other treatment possibilities.Having Covid may cause heart trouble later in life
Covid alters the body’s reaction to stress, and in turn may affect long-term heart health.
In a study at Appalachian State University in the U.S., 16 young adults who’d recently had Covid were put through standard stress tests (such as keeping their hands in icy water).
Those who’d had the infection experienced less pain but a quicker increase in heartbeat than a comparison group, reports the Journal of Physiology.
Researchers said this may be due to inflammation (which is also linked to long Covid symptoms), and suggest that in older adults the long-term effect may be greater.