Orthopaedic researchers from Jefferson Medical College have found stem cells in the intervertebral discs of the human spine.
The breakthrough discovery gives hope to those with neck and back pain as the cells could be used to repair damaged discs.
Implanting the cells could help the spine to heal by increasing the production of water-binding molecules called proteoglycans, the researchers said.
Water acts as a shock absorber in the spine.
Lead researcher Dr Makarand Risbud commented: "If we are able to stimulate the 'silent' cells in the patient, then it may be possible to repair the ravages of degenerative disc disease without undergoing invasive surgical procedures that may limit the motion of the spine."
The scientists want further studies to test their theory that molecules are blocking stem cell activity in the discs.
Painkillers are the most common treatment for back pain, with surgery to fuse the vertebrae another option in severe cases.
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