BACKGROUND: Tendon pathologies are common and several data suggests that the peripheral nervous system is involved in this disorder. Immunohistochemistry (IHC) is one of the pillars to characterize nervous structures and their implication in the pathogenesis of chronic tendon pain. Most commonly, formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded (FFPE) tendons are used for immunohistochemical characterization of the innervation. However, FFPE specimens exhibit major disadvantages: First, antigens (proteins) are masked and antigen retrieval is necessary to restore antigenicity. Second, FFPE specimens involve immunolabeling with enzyme-conjugated antibodies but this approach has limitations when multiple antigens are of interest simultaneously. Consequently, there is a demand in the orthopedic community for an alternative immunohistochemical approach to visualize tendon innervations.
RESULTS: Here, we present a guide how to visualize tendon innervation. This guide couples paraformaldehyde fixation, cryo-embedding, immunofluorescence, and confocal laser scanning microscopy. We demonstrate the utility of our approach in the long head of the biceps tendon. For nerve fiber characterization, we used different neuronal markers including antibodies against neurofilament, protein gene product 9.5, calcitonin gene related peptide, and substance P. We show that it is possible to collect high quality, multicolor images of the innervation pattern of tendons. To map immunolabeled structures and the anatomical structures of the tendon fluorescence images and bright field images were merged.
CONCLUSION: For the orthopedic community our approach might be a convenient research tool to simultaneously utilize multiple neuronal markers on the same tissue section and to define with greater accuracy the heterogeneity of tendon innervation.