Spine J. 2021 Feb 18:S1529-9430(21)00084-X. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2021.02.013. Online ahead of print.
The contribution of bacterial infection to chronic low back pain and its treatment with antibiotics have generated considerable controversy in literature. If efficacious, antibiotics have the potential to transform the treatment of chronic low back pain in a significant subset of patients. Some microbiology studies of disc tissue from patients with CLBP have shown that bacteria are present, most likely due to infection, while others conclude they are absent or if found, it is due to surgical contamination. Clinical studies testing the efficacy of oral antibiotics to treat CLBP have either shown that the treatment is efficacious leading to significantly reduced pain and disability or that their effect is modest and not clinically significant. Critical review of the literature on CLBP, bacterial infection and treatment with antibiotics identified five well-designed and executed microbiology studies characterising bacteria in disc samples that demonstrate that bacteria do infect herniated disc tissue, but that the bacterial burden is low and may be below the limits of detection in some studies. Two randomised, controlled clinical trials evaluating oral antibiotics in patients with CLBP indicate that for certain subsets of patients, the reduction in pain and disability achieved with antibiotic therapy may be significant. In patients for whom other therapies have failed, and who might otherwise progress to disc replacement or fusion surgery, antibiotic therapy may well be an attractive option to reduce the individual suffering associated with this debilitating condition. Additional clinical research is recommended to refine the selection of patients with CLBP caused or complicated by bacterial infection and most likely to respond to antibiotics, to optimise antibiotic therapy to maximise patient benefit, to minimise and manage side effects, and to address legitimate concerns about antibiotic stewardship.