As frightening as it might sound, disc desiccation is a widespread form of disc degeneration and often a natural consequence of aging. Otherwise known as disc dehydration, disc desiccation is a gradual process that becomes an identifiable condition from the moment a patient becomes symptomatic. This means they are experiencing symptoms of pain, loss of mobility, and neurological problems because of their degenerative spinal discs.
Understanding Disc Desiccation
Our spinal discs are specialized, rubber-like tissue separating each vertebral bone from one another along the length of the spine. Each disc is composed of a more rigid outer layer called the annulus fibrosis. Part of what makes the inner portion of the spinal disc viscous is a type of complex sugar that attracts and holds water. This viscosity is essential in giving the physical disc volume by retaining moisture and more excellent elasticity and shock absorption. A well-hydrated spinal disc can help better adapt to physical stressors.
This minimizes the effect of physical stress and causes fewer overall injuries. Older people become prone to back pain and spinal degeneration because aging affects the stability of the vertebrae and discs. However, aging affects the viscosity of the nucleus pulposus and the structural integrity of the spinal discs. When the spinal disc becomes dehydrated enough, much of the inner portion (that viscous material) becomes replaced with fibrocartilage. This creates a more rigid, albeit less flexible and absorbent disc.
Why Does This Matter?
Spinal discs play an essential role in maintaining the flexibility of the spine and the gaps between each vertebra. As these gaps or spinal foramen narrow due to disc herniation or desiccation, the surrounding nerve roots are compressed and damaged, sending pain signals throughout the affected area. Spinal discs aren’t innervated, so you won’t feel pain when they are damaged or swollen. However, inflexible, slipped, herniated, or swelling discs can press on the nerves can cause sharp or shooting one-sided pain that runs through your:
- Upper back
Disc desiccation can result in the loss of feeling in a related body part, weakness, slower reflexes, and tingling sensations. While disc desiccation is not the only form of disc degeneration resulting in nerve compression, treatment is very different from that of a potential bone spur, vertebral fracture, or spinal tumor. Understanding what kind of problem is causing your symptoms is essential.
What Causes Disc Degeneration?
Disc desiccation is, in most cases, a gradual process that begins with aging. However, that does not mean it is exclusive to the elderly. Far from it – a study in the Journal of Bioequivalence and Bioavailability showed that over 10 percent of patients under 50 years of age presenting with back trauma also experienced significant disc dehydration, possibly due to recurring physical stressors. While the spine can adapt to physical resistance, overuse of the spine is still easily possible.
The intervertebral discs are a largely avascular body part (meaning, they do not receive a steady blood supply), which slows healing and physical adaptations to stress. As much as physical stress can contribute to disc desiccation, aging is the ultimate cause. That does not mean that disc desiccation is inevitable for everyone, far from it. Protective factors slow the onset of degenerative disc disease (DDD), including disc desiccation, and help patients with existing disc problems continue to improve their quality of life and reduce pain symptoms.
How Does Disc Desiccation Begin?
Aside from aging, disc desiccation may begin after:
- Repeated back strain.
- Physical trauma from a major fall, accident, or incident.
- Sudden weight loss and fluid loss, including malnourishment or eating disorders.
- During or as a result of worsening ankylosing spondylitis (a type of arthritis that affects the spine, causing inflammation in the vertebrae).
Comprehensive pain management can effectively address and relieve disc desiccation pain and discomfort. If you are experiencing one-sided back or leg pain, chronic back pain, or long-lasting and severe back pain, visit a medical professional for a diagnosis. Specific symptoms warrant emergency help, including:
- Severe nausea.
- Loss of feeling in the legs or arms.
- Loss of bowel and/or bladder control.
- Back pain coupled with a sudden fever.
Treatments for Disc Desiccation
Treatment for disc desiccation may depend on the cause of the problem, concurrent health conditions, and potential risk factors. Your doctor may recommend short-term and long-term pain management strategies to address your risk factors and improve your symptoms. A treatment plan for disc desiccation may include:
- Pain management: A comprehensive pain management plan may include over-the-counter or prescription medication, learning which postures to avoid, improving posture and mobility at work, mobility aids, hot/cold therapy, and more.
- Physical therapy: A personalized physical therapy plan, via the supervision of a trained rehab specialist, can help you stabilize the spine by strengthening the surrounding musculature, significantly reducing the risk of future pain due to disc degeneration.
- Nerve blocks and injections: Corticosteroid injections and anesthetic nerve blocks can temporarily alleviate pain by reducing swelling and directly cutting off the link between the compressed nerves and the brain. Sometimes, a specialized nerve block or radiofrequency ablation may be necessary if the compression damages the nerve. This block destroys the affected portion of the nerve and allows it to regrow.
- Spinal fusion surgery: In rare cases, disc desiccation may require surgery, including spinal fusion. A spinal fusion surgery merges two or more vertebrae into one spinal body if the disc in between is severely compromised. Spinal fusion surgery involves a surgeon removing the desiccated disc, applying a bone graft, then inserting a specialized frame. The frame keeps the two vertebrae stable as they heal and fuse.
Preventing Disc Desiccation
It is said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is valid for disc desiccation. Diet, exercise, and avoiding lifestyle choices like smoking and drinking can mitigate the risk of disc desiccation. Despite this, disc desiccation is ultimately a normal part of aging. Disc herniation, disc desiccation, and other degenerative disc issues are common in nearly all age groups, although often asymptomatic. Symptomatic cases become statistically more likely with advanced age.
We cannot keep our bodies from breaking down with time. But we can minimize these changes’ impact on our quality of life through exercise and other healthy habits. Keeping yourself hydrated, keeping your core strong, improving spinal stability, and avoiding drugs like tobacco and alcohol can reduce pain symptoms, even in the event of disc desiccation or herniation.