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Disc Desiccation – Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Disc desiccation is considered a normal part of ageing. The spine is composed of bones known as vertebrae. In between these vertebrae, there are fluid-filled discs. These discs can begin to turn smaller and less flexible as they dehydrate [1] . Hence, the desiccation of these discs is considered a common disorder caused by the tissues becoming dehydrated. This occurrence is also otherwise observed as the discs starting to degenerate or break down [2] .

Read on to know more about disc desiccation, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment methodologies.

What Is Disc Desiccation?

The tough, spongy disc, in between each vertebra, acts as a shock absorber. When these discs start to wear down, it is considered to be part of a process called degenerative disc disease.

Disc desiccation is also identified as a disorder that occurs due to dehydration of your discs. When the vertebral discs are full of fluid, it is flexible as well as sturdy. However, as one begins to age, the discs begin to dehydrate causing a gradual loss of their fluid. The disc fluid then gets replaced by fibrocartilage (tough fibrous tissue that forms the outer portion of the disc) [3] .

The following are the five different sections of the spine [4] :

1. Cervical spine (neck): The first seven bones situated at the top of the neck

2. Thoracic spine (mid back): The twelve bones below the cervical spine

3. Lumbar spine (low back): The five bones below the thoracic spine

4. Sacral spine: The five bones below the lumbar region.

5. Coccyx: The last four bones of the spine are fused together. These support the pelvic floor.

The disc between the vertebrae in the spinal column prevent the bones from rubbing against each other.

Symptoms Of Disc Desiccation

The symptoms are specific depending on the affected area of the spine. For instance, cervical spine disc desiccation results in severe neck pain, whereas lumbar disc desiccation causes pain in the lower back region.

The general symptoms of disc desiccation are as follows [5] :

  • Weakness
  • Stiffness
  • Reduced or painful movements
  • Numbness in the legs or feet
  • Burning or tingling sensation, especially in the back region
  • Change in the knee and foot reflexes
  • Sciatica (pain caused by the irritation of the sciatic nerve)

Causes Of Disc Desiccation

The most common cause of desiccated discs is ageing (wear and tear on your spine) [6] . The following are some of the other causes of disc desiccation [7] :

  • Weight gain or loss
  • Accident or trauma
  • Repetitive movements that strain the back (such as lifting heavy objects)

Disc Desiccation Diagnosis

It all usually starts with low back pain. Most people learn that they have disc desiccation only after they consult a doctor to find a cure for the constant backache. The doctor begins the diagnosis with knowledge about the medical history of the patient followed by a physical examination.

Apart from knowing your past medical history, your doctor might also want to know the following [8] :

  • What makes the pain better
  • When the pain started
  • What makes the pain worse
  • How often the pain occurs
  • The type of pain
  • If the pain radiates to other areas of the body

The doctor would examine the back, legs and arms to identify the kind of pain and where it is radiating to. The doctor would move your arms and legs to check if there is a decrease in the range of motion [9] . The strength of the various muscles would also be tested along with a test for checking the sensation in the limbs and deep tendon reflexes [10] . All this information is used by the doctor to figure out the particular disc that might have been affected. Your doctor can also send you for additional testing which might include the following:

  • CT scan
  • X-ray
  • MRI scan

The X-ray or scan results would help the doctor to look directly at the bones and structure of your spine. The images also allow the doctor to look at the shape and size of the disc. Desiccated disks usually appear thinner or smaller. Desiccated disks are less consistent in shape [11] . The bones would also show some amount of damage due to rubbing against each other.

Disc Desiccation Treatment

If the desiccated disks are not causing any significant pain or not affecting your daily activities, then no particular treatment is actually necessary. Nevertheless, the following are some remedies that you can consider for treating desiccated disks.

  • Avoid uncomfortable postures
  • Use a brace for your back when lifting heavy objects [12]
  • Follow a weight loss regime [13] along with core exercises for increasing the strength of the back muscles.
  • Take over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers whenever required.
  • Use of steroid injections [14] or a local anaesthetic to relieve the inflammation and pain

Massage therapy can help relieve painful pressure by relaxing the muscles near the affected vertebrae.

Surgical intervention might be required if the above mentioned methods do not work.

The following are some of the possible surgical procedures to treat desiccated disks:

Fusion: The vertebrae surrounding the desiccated disc will be joined together [15] . This stabilizes the back and prevents movement that can worsen the discomfort or pain.

Correction: An abnormal curvature of the spine will be corrected through necessary repairs [16] . This can relieve pain and increase the range of motion.

Decompression: The extra bone or disc material that has moved out of place will be removed [17] . This is done to make room for the spinal nerves.

Implants: Artificial discs (also known as spacers) [18] are placed between vertebrae in order to stop the bones from rubbing against each other.

At times it might seem necessary to go ahead with a second or third opinion before you decide on getting a surgical intervention for the desiccated disks. Always approach a spinal specialist who can provide you with all the best possible treatment options.

Is Disc Desiccation Preventable?

Although with ageing, disc desiccation seems obvious. However, you can take essential steps to slow down the process.

Some of the prevention methods are as follows [19] :

  • Perform regular stretching exercises
  • Incorporate core strengthening exercises into your routine
  • Maintain a healthy weight to avoid putting extra pressure on your spine
  • Stay hydrated
  • Always maintain a good spinal posture
  • Avoid smoking (as smoking can speed up the degeneration of your discs)

On A Final Note...

Disc desiccation is extremely common and can be considered a natural effect of ageing. In most of the cases, making certain lifestyle changes alongside precautionary measures can help an elderly easily manage and prevent the pain from worsening.

In case your daily life is being affected due to this ailment then consult a spinal specialist who would be able to come up with a treatment plan that can reduce pain and increase daily motion.

View Article References
  1. [1] Waxenbaum, J. A., & Futterman, B. (2018). Anatomy, Back, Intervertebral Discs. InStatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.
  2. [2] Paajanen, H., Erkintalo, M., Parkkola, R., Salminen, J., & Kormano, M. (1997). Age-dependent correlation of low-back pain and lumbar disc degeneration.Archives of orthopaedic and trauma surgery,116(1-2), 106-107.
  3. [3] Taher, F., Essig, D., Lebl, D. R., Hughes, A. P., Sama, A. A., Cammisa, F. P., & Girardi, F. P. (2012). Lumbar degenerative disc disease: current and future concepts of diagnosis and management.Advances in orthopedics,2012, 970752.
  4. [4] Nógrádi, A., & Vrbová, G. (2006). Anatomy and physiology of the spinal cord. InTransplantation of Neural Tissue into the Spinal Cord(pp. 1-23). Springer, Boston, MA.
  5. [5] Knezevic, N. N., Mandalia, S., Raasch, J., Knezevic, I., & Candido, K. D. (2017). Treatment of chronic low back pain - new approaches on the horizon.Journal of pain research,10, 1111–1123.
  6. [6] Smith, L. J., Nerurkar, N. L., Choi, K. S., Harfe, B. D., & Elliott, D. M. (2010). Degeneration and regeneration of the intervertebral disc: lessons from development.Disease models & mechanisms,4(1), 31–41.
  7. [7] Feng, Y., Egan, B., & Wang, J. (2016). Genetic Factors in Intervertebral Disc Degeneration.Genes & diseases,3(3), 178–185.
  8. [8] Omidi-Kashani, F., Hejrati, H., & Ariamanesh, S. (2016). Ten Important Tips in Treating a Patient with Lumbar Disc Herniation.Asian spine journal,10(5), 955–963.
  9. [9] Suzuki, A., Daubs, M. D., Hayashi, T., Ruangchainikom, M., Xiong, C., Phan, K., … Wang, J. C. (2017). Patterns of Cervical Disc Degeneration: Analysis of Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Over 1000 Symptomatic Subjects.Global spine journal,8(3), 254–259.
  10. [10] Walker, H. K., Hall, W. D., & Hurst, J. W. (1990). Diplopia--Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations.
  11. [11] Brinjikji, W., Luetmer, P. H., Comstock, B., Bresnahan, B. W., Chen, L. E., Deyo, R. A., … Jarvik, J. G. (2014). Systematic literature review of imaging features of spinal degeneration in asymptomatic populations.AJNR. American journal of neuroradiology,36(4), 811–816.
  12. [12] Nicholson, G. P., Ferguson-Pell, M. W., Smith, K., Edgar, M., & Morley, T. (2002). Quantitative measurement of spinal brace use and compliance in the treatment of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis.Studies in health technology and informatics,91, 372-377.
  13. [13] Belavý, D. L., Quittner, M. J., Ridgers, N., Ling, Y., Connell, D., & Rantalainen, T. (2017). Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc.Scientific reports,7, 45975.
  14. [14] Buttermann, G. R. (2004). The effect of spinal steroid injections for degenerative disc disease.The Spine Journal,4(5), 495-505.
  15. [15] Djurasovic, M., Carreon, L. Y., Crawford III, C. H., Zook, J. D., Bratcher, K. R., & Glassman, S. D. (2012). The influence of preoperative MRI findings on lumbar fusion clinical outcomes.European Spine Journal,21(8), 1616-1623.
  16. [16] Khan, A. N., Jacobsen, H. E., Khan, J., Filippi, C. G., Levine, M., Lehman, R. A., Jr, … Chahine, N. O. (2017). Inflammatory biomarkers of low back pain and disc degeneration: a review.Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,1410(1), 68–84.
  17. [17] Djurasovic, M., Carreon, L. Y., Crawford III, C. H., Zook, J. D., Bratcher, K. R., & Glassman, S. D. (2012). The influence of preoperative MRI findings on lumbar fusion clinical outcomes.European Spine Journal,21(8), 1616-1623.
  18. [18] Beatty, S. (2018). We Need to Talk about Lumbar Total Disc Replacement.International journal of spine surgery,12(2), 201-240.
  19. [19] Smith, L. J., Nerurkar, N. L., Choi, K. S., Harfe, B. D., & Elliott, D. M. (2010). Degeneration and regeneration of the intervertebral disc: lessons from development.Disease models & mechanisms,4(1), 31–41.
Read more about: ageing dehydration
Story first published: Sunday, April 14, 2019, 9:00 [IST]
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