The spine is made up of bones called vertebrae, in between which are small fluid-filled discs. Desiccation of those discs is a common disorder caused by the tissues becoming dehydrated.

The discs between the vertebrae in the spinal column absorb shock and impact and prevent the bones from rubbing against each other.

There are five different sections of the spine:

  • Cervical spine (neck): The first seven bones at the top of the neck.
  • Thoracic spine (mid back): The 12 bones below the cervical spine.
  • Lumbar spine (low back): The five bones below the thoracic spine.
  • Sacral spine: The five bones below the lumbar region.
  • Coccyx: The final four bones of the coccyx are fused together and support the pelvic floor.

Disc desiccation is a normal part of aging. The discs can become smaller and less flexible as they dehydrate, and can eventually start to break down or degenerate.

What are the symptoms?

Model of spinal column showing discs and vertebra.
Disc desiccation is the dehydration of discs between the vertebrae.

The symptoms of desiccation depend on the area of the spine that is affected.

Cervical spine disc desiccation causes neck pain, while lumbar disc desiccation will cause pain in the lower back.

Other symptoms of disc desiccation include:

  • stiffness
  • weakness
  • burning or tingling sensation
  • numbness in the legs or feet
  • reduced or painful movement
  • sciatica

Causes

Aging is the most common cause of desiccated discs, though it can occur in younger people as well.

Other causes of disc desiccation include:

  • accident or trauma
  • weight gain or loss
  • repetitive movements, such as heavy lifting that strains the back

How is it diagnosed?

Doctor performing physical examination of older mans back
A physical examination can diagnose disc dessication.

Disc desiccation and degenerative disc disease are among the most common causes of lower back pain.

Most people learn that they have this condition when they see their doctor about their pain. The doctor will start by taking a history and performing a physical exam.

In addition to asking about previous medical or surgical conditions, the doctor will want to know about the pain, including:

  • when it started
  • what makes it better
  • what makes it worse
  • the type of pain
  • how often it occurs
  • if it radiates to other areas

The doctor may feel the back, legs, and arms during the physical exam to determine where the pain is occurring or radiating too.

The doctor may move the arms and legs to see if there is a decrease in the range of motion, and test the strength of the various muscles. Sensation in the limbs and deep tendon reflexes will also be tested.

A doctor will use all the information to figure out what area of the back or which particular disc may be affected.

Additional testing may be ordered after the initial visit, including:

  • X-ray
  • CT (computed tomography) scan
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan

These tests allow the doctor to look directly at the bones and structure of the spine, including the shape and size of the discs.

Dessicated discs may appear smaller or thinner, and the bones themselves may appear to have some damage if they are rubbing against each other.

Treatment options

Swimming senior person.
Exercise may increase back muscle strength.

No treatment may be necessary if desiccated discs are not causing significant pain or interfering with daily life.

Basic home remedies include:

  • avoiding painful or uncomfortable positions
  • using a brace around the back when lifting something heavy
  • increasing strength of the back muscles through core exercises and weight loss
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription pain relievers when needed
  • using steroid injections or a local anesthetic to relieve pain and inflammation

Surgery may be necessary if these measures do not work.

There are many different ways that surgery can help with a desiccated disc. Possible procedures may include:

  • Fusion: The surgeon will join together the vertebrae surrounding the desiccated disc. This helps to stabilize the back and prevent movement that can worsen pain or discomfort.
  • Decompression: The surgeon will remove extra bone or a disc material that has moved out of place in order to make more room for the spinal nerves.
  • Correction: The surgeon will make the repairs necessary to correct an abnormal curvature of the spine, if there is one. This can help relieve pain and increase range of motion.
  • Implants: Artificial discs, or spacers, can be placed in between vertebrae to stop the bones from rubbing.

Someone who is considering surgery should find a spinal specialist who can present the options that are best for their situation. Getting a second or third opinion may help someone to find the best approach.

Prevention

Taking steps to prevent disc desiccation and degeneration is essential.

Prevention methods are good for general health and wellbeing and include the following:

  • Stay hydrated: Not drinking enough water each day can cause the body to function less well or not retain enough water, including the discs.
  • Don’t smoke: Cigarette use can directly affect the discs in the back and increase the rate of disc degeneration.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight or obese puts extra pressure on the back and spine, which can cause the desiccation and decay of the intervertebral discs.
  • Take regular exercise: Participating in regular cardio and weight-training exercises can strengthen the bones and muscles and promote good range of motion in the back. People can ask their doctor or a physical therapist for specific exercises that support the back muscles.

Takeaway

Disc desiccation is a common and natural effect of aging. In most cases, taking precautions at home and making lifestyle changes can manage or prevent pain from worsening.

If someone’s daily life is impacted, consulting with the doctor or spinal specialist may help them to identify treatments that can reduce pain or increase daily motion.

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