Last updated:05-18-2010
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Definition and causes

A discus is a plate consisting of a fibrus ring enclosing a pulpy matter. They are found throughout the spine between the bodies of adjacent vertebrae (23 in total).  They have a shock absorbing function and increase the mobility of the spine. With age, these discs become less elastic and decrease in thickness increasing wear of the vertebrae. The deterioration of the discs is progressing faster when the person has been subjected to heavy physical work in akward positions.

When the discs are narrowed they may collide with movements of the spine causing pain or in more severe cases pressure on the nerves. At later stages movement of the back will be increasingly limited.

Changes in the discus can be seen on X-rays in 50% of all 50-year-olds and in 100% of all 80 year olds and is therefore the result of a natural aging process. Discusdegeneration is a frequent cause of low back pain (lumbago) and neck problems. 


Symptoms of discusdegeneration

Symptoms from the neck: 
  • Pain in the neck or pain derived from the neck in the form of headache and pain in the shoulder area. 
  • Decreased  movement of the head and neck. 
  • Development of trigger points (muscle wear that causes radiation of pain to another area of the body when touched).

Symptoms from the lumbar region:

  • Pain and morning stiffness. 
  • Aggravation with physical excercise. 
  • Radiating pain to the buttock region and the back of the leg (sciatic pain). 
  • Lateral curvature of the spine (scoliosis). 

Precautions and diagnosis

When one experiences pain from the neck or back one should always consider if one is subjecting ones back to too much strain in everyday life. One should therefore strive for optimum working conditions and position. If  pain of the neck or back does not disappear after a week's time, you can visit the doctor, who will examine for tenderness of the vertebrae and backmuscles and investigate if movement is restricted. If the condition is associated with radiating pain to the buttock or back of a leg one may suspect a slipped disc.

An X-ray will reveal if one or more discus have become narrowed or if there are changes to the bone structure of the vertebrae. In case of nerve pain an MRI or CT scan may reveal if there is pressure on a nerve. 


Prevention and treatment of discusdegeneration

Regular excercise and training of the back as well as an optimized posture can do much to prevent discusdegeneration. Stretching excercises where the back is leaned backwards is also effectful. For pain you can take ordinary painkillers containing paracetamol (Panodil, Pamol and others) or ibuprofen (Ipren, ibuprofen and others). Massage can loosen muscle tension. If there is persistent pressure on a nerve, surgery may be an option.

Prognosis and complications

The natural course of the disease may vary and can be changed with changes in working position, posture and life style. Muscle tension is a major cause of pain, and progress will depend on whether the vertebrae and muscles are aubject to inappropriate wear and tear.

The degenerative changes in a discus can cause reduced space of the spine affecting the nerves and the development of touch and power disruptions in the legs and affected bladder function.

In pronounced cases of degeneration a slippage of one vertebrae in relation to the others can be seen.

Related articles:

Spinal disc herniation (slipped disc)



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