Understanding Disc Desiccation

Medically reviewed by Gregory Minnis, DPT on November 1, 2017Written by James Roland

What is disc desiccation?

Your spine is made up of a stack of bones called vertebrae. In between each vertebra, you have a tough, spongy disc that acts as a shock absorber. Over time, these discs wear down as part of a process called degenerative disc disease.

Disc desiccation is one of the most common features of degenerative disc disease. It refers to the dehydration of your discs. Your vertebral discs are full of fluid, which keeps them both flexible and sturdy. As you age, the discs begin to dehydrate or slowly lose their fluid. The disc’s fluid is replaced by fibrocartilage, the tough, fibrous tissue that makes up the outer portion of the disc.

What are the symptoms?

The first sign of disc desiccation is usually stiffness in your back. You may also feel pain, weakness, or a tingling sensation in your back. Depending on which discs are affected, you could also feel numbness in your lower back.

In some cases, the pain or numbness will travel from your back and down one or both legs. You may also notice a change in your knee and foot reflexes.

What causes it?

Disc desiccation is usually caused by wear and tear on your spine, which happens naturally as you age.

Several other things can also cause disc desiccation, such as:

  • trauma from a car accident, fall, or sports injury
  • repeated strain on your back, especially from lifting heavy objects
  • sudden weight loss, which can cause your body, including your discs, to lose a lot of fluid

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will likely start with a physical exam. They may ask you to do certain movements to see if they cause any pain. This can also help your doctor figure out which discs might be affected.

Next, you’ll likely need an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan to give your doctor a better look at your vertebrae and discs. Dehydrated discs are usually thinner and less consistent in shape. These images will also show any additional problems that might be causing your back pain, such as a ruptured or herniated disc.

How is it treated?

If your symptoms are mild, your doctor may advise you to maintain a healthy weight, practice good posture, and avoid common back pain triggers, such as lifting heavy objects.

If your symptoms are more severe, there are several treatment options that can help, including:

  • Medication. Pain relievers, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can help reduce pain.
  • Massage therapy. Relaxing the muscles near the affected vertebrae can help relieve painful pressure.
  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist can teach you how to strengthen the core muscles that support your trunk and take pressure off your back. They can also help you improve your posture and come up with strategies to avoid movements or positions that may trigger symptoms.
  • Spinal injections. A corticosteroid injection may help reduce inflammation and pain in your back.

In rare cases, you may need spinal surgery. One type, called spinal fusion surgery, involves permanently joining two vertebrae. This can help to stabilize your spine and prevent movements that cause pain. Other options include disc replacement or adding another kind of spacer between your vertebrae.

Is it preventable?

Disc desiccation is a normal part of aging, but there are several things you can do to slow down the process, including:

  • exercising regularly and making sure to incorporate core-strengthening exercises into your routine
  • regularly stretching
  • maintaining a healthy weight to avoid putting extra pressure on your spine
  • not smoking, which can speed up the degeneration of your discs
  • staying hydrated
  • maintaining good spinal posture

Certain core exercises can also help older people improve muscle function.

Living with disc desiccation

Disc desiccation may be an unavoidable part of a long, healthy life, but there are several options for managing any symptoms you have. If you’re having back pain, work with your doctor to come up with a pain management plan. This usually involves a combination of medication, physical therapy, and exercise.

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