Burned-Out Discs Stop Hurting: Fact or Fiction?

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Abstract

Study Design.

Cross-sectional study of a general-population sample.

Objective.

The aim was to test the hypothesis that moderate disc degeneration (DD) is stronger associated with low back pain (LBP) than severe degeneration, and also to identify a possible dose-response relationship between numbers of degenerated discs and LBP.

Summary of Background Data.

Among many clinicians there has been a belief that DD initially causes pain because of the penetration of fluid nuclear material through annular fissures, and that pain eventually resolves as the nucleus becomes fibrotic and can no longer penetrate the fissures.

Methods.

From a population-based cohort of 412 individuals, all aged 40, three groups were created for a primary analysis: those with exclusively normal discs (white nuclei on a T2-weighted MRI), those with moderate DD (grey) + normal, and those with severely degenerated (black) + normal discs. The number of individuals reporting LBP during the past year (the most relevant for chronic/intermittent pain) and the past month were separately related to DD. Second, a possible dose-response in terms of numbers of abnormal discs was analyzed.

Results.

The percentage of people with LBP was virtually not influenced by grey discs, where the fraction with pain during the past year was close to 69% irrespective of the presence or number of grey discs. Black discs, however, increased the corresponding fraction from 60%, if no black discs, to 86% for those with 2 (odds ratio of 2 per number of black disc). The risk for LBP during the past year attributed to black discs was 11%.

Conclusion.

The data could not support the hypothesis that severely degenerated discs are “burned out” and become less painful. People with black discs had a higher prevalence of LBP compared to those with grey or normal discs, the latter 2 being equally often painful.

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