Excessive loads may affect precipitate vertebral disc damage, scientists find

Aug 10 2011
Researchers at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, Spain recently published a paper in PLoS Computational Biology revealing new findings on degenerative disc disease, which commonly occurs as people age.

Disc degeneration can lead to increased stress on the spine, frequently causing back pain.

The study revealed that spinal overloading has a greater effect on healthy discs than degenerated ones. However, healthy loading may actually help maintain metabolic balance in discs, affecting the concentration of solutes that bring nutrients into the discs.

"It's essential for the healthy function of the spine that disc cells are provided with the nutrients necessary for tissue maintenance," said Damien Lacroix, head of the research group. He added that if overloading disturbed the metabolic balance, it might lead to disc degeneration.

Researchers also found that the cell density of a disc changes during degeneration, which may explain why healthy discs were more affected by loading than degenerated discs. The scientists hope these discoveries and further research may lead to advancements in disc regeneration.

During degenerative disc disease, the spine's discs weaken and thin, reducing the cushion between the vertebrae. As they degenerate, discs may be pushed out of alignment with the spine, most commonly in the lower back. This can cause the vertebrae, muscles or joints to shift in painful ways.

Discs may also be more likely to rupture as they degenerate, which can lead to painful inflammation of the surrounding tissue. Smoking may increase the likelihood of disc degeneration due to its affect on blood flow, according to the National Institutes of Health.

While conservative treatments are recommended for most low back pain and conditions that cause it, severe cases of disc degeneration may be treated by spinal fusion, or the disc may be replaced with an artificial substitute to cushion the vertebrae.