The cells of the intervertebral disc exist in an unusual environment. They are embedded in a dense matrix containing a high concentration of aggrecan whose fixed negative charges regulate the extracellular ionic composition and osmolarity; both extracellular cation concentrations and osmolarity are considerably higher than those experienced by most cell types. The disc also is avascular. Oxygen levels in the centre of the nucleus, where cells may be 6–8 mm from the blood supply, are very low. Since metabolism is mainly by glycolysis, lactic acid is produced at high rates and hence the pH is acidic. Finally, the disc is subjected to mechanical forces at all times; these vary with posture and activity. In particular, because the disc is under low loads during rest and high loads during the day's activities, it loses and regains around 25% of its fluid over a diurnal cycle with consequent changes to the concentrations of extracellular matrix macromolecules and ions and hence extracellular osmolality. Here we will briefly review these factors and discuss the influence of changes in the physicochemical environment on cellular activity, in particular on the rate at which disc cells synthesize and degrade matrix macro-molecules.

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