Cytokines are small secreted proteins released by cells have a specific effect on the interactions and communications between cells. Cytokine is a general name; other names include lymphokine (cytokines made by lymphocytes), monokine (cytokines made by monocytes), chemokine (cytokines with chemotactic activities), and interleukin (cytokines made by one leukocyte and acting on other leukocytes). Cytokines may act on the cells that secrete them (autocrine action), on nearby cells (paracrine action), or in some instances on distant cells (endocrine action). Cytokines include chemokines, interferons, interleukins, lymphokines, tumour necrosis factor but generally not hormones or growth factors (despite some terminologic overlap). Cytokines are produced by a broad range of cells, including immune cells like macrophages, B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes and mast cells, as well as endothelial cells, fibroblasts, and various stromal cells; a given cytokine may be produced by more than one type of cell. There are both pro-inflammatory cytokines and anti-inflammatory cytokines. There is significant evidence showing that certain cytokines/chemokines are involved in not only the initiation but also the persistence of pathologic pain by directly activating nociceptive sensory neurons. Certain inflammatory cytokines are also involved in nerve-injury/inflammation-induced central sensitization, and are related to the development of contralateral hyperalgesia/allodynia.
It is common for different cell types to secrete the same cytokine or for a single cytokine to act on several different cell types (pleiotropy). Cytokines are redundant in their activity, meaning similar functions can be stimulated by different cytokines. They are often produced in a cascade, as one cytokine stimulates its target cells to make additional cytokines. Cytokines can also act synergistically or antagonistically.
Cytokines are made by many cell populations, but the predominant producers are helper T cells (Th) and macrophages. Cytokines may be produced in and by peripheral nerve tissue during physiological and pathological processes by resident and recruited macrophages, mast cells, endothelial cells, and Schwann cells. Following a peripheral nerve injury, macrophages and Schwann cells that gather around the injured site of the nerve secrete cytokines and specific growth factors required for nerve regeneration. Localized inflammatory irritation of the dorsal root ganglion (DRG) not only increases pro-inflammatory cytokines but also decreases anti-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines can also be synthesized and released from the herniated nucleus pulposus, synthesized inside the spinal cord, the DRG soma, or the inflamed skin. Furthermore, cytokines may be transported in a retrograde fashion from the periphery, via axonal or non-axonal mechanisms, to the DRG and dorsal horn, where they can have profound effects on neuronal activity and therefore contribute to the etiology of various pathological pain states.