“People shook their heads and asked us if we were crazy and also thought that the earth was flat,” one of the researchers, Claus Manniche, told Politiken newspaper about the reactions he received from colleagues when he was carrying out the research. “It’s nice to be able to say today that there was something to the idea.”
The researchers worked with doctors in Birmingham, England, and studied tissue samples extracted from patients suffering from chronic back pain. They discovered that nearly half were infected with bacteria and that about 80 percent of the time it was the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes, which more commonly causes acne.
The researchers think that blood vessels that form around discs in the vertebrae to help the healing process following a slipped disc end up carrying the bacteria to the discs, were they thrive and cause damage.
They discovered that the pain could therefore be treated with antibiotics. In a paper published in the European Spine Journal, the researchers showed that a 100-day treatment with antibiotics reduced pain in 80 percent of patients.
“The results are indisputable,” Manniche said. “Those who received medicine for three months improved across all the important factors: pain levels, functionality and ability to work.”
The researchers' finding could open up new and cheaper treatment options for patients who have suffered for long periods of time, though not everyone will benefit from the treatment.
"This will not help people with normal back pain, those with acute or sub-acute pain – only those with chronic lower back pain," Hanne Albert, another of the researchers on the team, told the Guardian newspaper. "These are people who live a life on the edge because they are so handicapped with pain. We are returning them to a form of normality they would never have expected."
Despite this, Peter Hamlyn, a neurological and spinal surgeon at University College London hospital, said the treatment could be an alternative for a large number of sufferers.
"This is vast,” Hamlyn told the Guardian. “We are talking about probably half of all spinal surgery for back pain being replaced by taking antibiotics."