CerebroSpinal Fluid Flow and Pain Management

Editor’s Memo: Spinal Fluid Flow and Pain Managementpracticalpainmanagement.com – Editor’s Memo June 2017 By Forest Tennant, MD, DrPH

Spinal fluid flow (SFF) [also called cerebrospinal fluid, CSF] has been a silent subject in pain management.

This has to change.

For a while, pain practitioners have unknowingly been utilizing a variety of measures that likely enhance SFF.

Progressive research that involves SFF has shown how it occurs, how it may promote pain, and how it may impede treatment efforts.  

Specifically, our new understanding is that

  • neuroinflammation,
  • neuroprotection, and
  • neuroregeneration,

which are critical elements of pain management, are all dependent on some degree of SFF.

The basic physiologic functions of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) are now known.

The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) contains about 125 to 150 mL of CSF.

It is produced from serum in the choroid plexus in the brain’s ventral system.

Incredibly, the entire amount of CSF turns over about 4 times a day (total production, 400-500 mL/d).  

Its functions are multiple:

  • Transport of nutrients
  • Barrier to cushion trauma to the brain
  • Lubricant to prevent friction between nerve roots and the canal lining
  • Disposal of waste products (harmful metabolites, drugs, and other substances)

CSF exits the brain and spinal canal through cranial lymph and glymphatic channels to enter the general circulation.

Sleep promotes clearance of metabolites and waste, such as amyloid and neuroinflammatory by-products.

Nutrients that are transported from serum into the CSF include vitamins B1, B12, and C; folate; beta-2 microglobulin; arginine vasopressin; and nitrous oxide.

Interestingly, the pump, or mechanism, that drives CSF downward from the site of production in the brain to the sacral area and then back up to the brain sites for reabsorption in the general circulation is unclear.

The best theory at this time is that arterial pressure in arteries around the choroid plexus propels fluid movement.

Breathing may also promote fluid movement.

Role of Spinal Fluid Flow in Pain Management

Regardless, SFF does not have an active, visible pump like the heart to drive fluid flow. The relevance of SFF to practical pain management is clear.

Good SFF is:

  • Critical to providing nutrients to the spinal cord canal and cauda equina nerve roots
  • An essential component in preventing friction between nerve roots
  • Needed to carry away waste products from neuro-inflammation
  • Vital for bringing therapeutic drugs to target areas such as the cauda equina

The answers to the major questions for pain management are incompletely known: How do we diagnose SFF impairment, and what do we do about it?

Symptomatically, pain patients with SFF impairment may complain of weakness, headache, blurred vision, tinnitus, or increased pain if they stand or sit too long.

Some will have to lie or sit down after standing for only a few minutes.

Contrast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may now show, for example, spinal fluid on only one side of the cord in the cervical or lumbar spine areas. The thecal sac may sometimes look distended in the lumbar area if there is obstruction in the sacral area.

Some studies of pressure gradients in the spinal cord suggest that anything that protrudes into or narrows the spinal canal may cause pressure gradients across the canal and impede SFF

It is likely that common spinal conditions, such as protruding discs, stenosis, kyphoscoliosis, and arachnoiditis, may all impede SFF.

The instability of our spinal joints as a consequence of having EDS undoubtedly leads to an increased likelihood of deformities in the spinal canal which would then lead to impaired CSF circulation.

One consequence can be getting those horrible “spinal headaches” as a result of too much or too little fluid pressure around the brain.

impaired SFF may

  • leave initiating inflammatory waste in the CSF,
  • deprive the spinal cord and nerve roots of nutrition, and
  • prevent therapeutic agents from reaching target areas.

Age-Old Treatments May Help

It may also well be that many of the age-old techniques used to treat basic pain exact their effect by increasing SFF.

These techniques include

  • massage and manipulation of the spine.
  • Walking,
  • stretching,
  • cycling,
  • heat, and
  • yoga may all help SFF.

The most notable recollection that comes to my mind is that the renowned pain physician, Janet Travell, MD, became John F. Kennedy’s pain physician in 1955 after he had developed multiple spine problems and had failed multiple spine surgeries.

Her first treatment was not opioids but was a rocking chair. (also see The Medical Ordeals and Chronic Pain of JFK)


Sakka L, Coll G, Chazal Anatomy and physiology of cerebrospinal fluid. J. Eur Ann Otorhinolaryngol Head Neck Dis. 2011;128(6):309-316.
Johanson CE, Duncan JA, Klinge PM, Brinker T, Stopa EG, Silverberg GD. Multiplicity of cerebrospinal fluid functions: new challenges in health and disease. Cerebrospinal Fluid Res. 2008;5:10.
Johanson C, Duncan J, Baird A, Stopa E, McMillan P. Choroid plexus: a key player in neuroprotection and neuroregeneration. Int J Neuroprot Neuroregener. 2005;1:77-85.
Xie L, Kang H, Xu Q, et al. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science. 2013;342(6156:373-377.

Researching my frequent disabling headaches, I learned these can be caused by disruptions of our cerebrospinal fluid pressure.

This is common with EDS because the instability of the cervical spine from EDS can lead to problems with cerebrospinal fluid dynamics:

7 thoughts on “CerebroSpinal Fluid Flow and Pain Management

  1. Emily Raven

    Really wondering if there should be a warning against epidural injection in people with those symptoms or the diagnosis. I know it’s common sense that “hey this doesn’t sound like a good idea” but they still do it with no regards to how fragile you actually are and with no imaging done before hand to see what they’re shoving steroids into.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Doing any kind of “spinal injection” should never be done “freehand”, but I’ve heard of docs doing them without a fluoroscope.

      Of course we’re all so different, but medicine in general these days seems to think that any Tx that has been found to work for the “average patient” will automatically work for all patients, all the time, in all circumstances.

      These are the downsides of standardization, which is being pushed because it’s more efficient and thus generates more profit for the corporatations who hire most docs and pretty much run our healthcare these days.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA

    It’s my opinion that the gentle rocking motion of normal horseback riding encourages CSF circulation. We’ve all seen those amazing improvements in people post-stroke, or with cerebral palsy, in equine therapy. My own spine doctors were shocked that, even though I’ve got extensive spine disease, I kept riding. “The best medicine for the inside of a human is the outside of a horse!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      That sounds about right to me. There’s something special about horseback riding – perhaps we coevolved with horses too, not just dogs, so there’s a special synergy in how our bodies respond to these animals.

      Maybe I shouldn’t write off horseback riding for myself just yet…


  3. Pingback: Neuroinflammation: Underlying Cause of Chronic Pain | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

  4. Pingback: New Type of Chronic Daily Headache | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

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