Disc desiccation is a mysterious medical term for many patients who undergo MRI imaging of their spinal structures. Almost every adult patient will demonstrate desiccation in some areas of the spine, as the condition is normal and expected. However, patients who do not know the objective facts about disc conditions may be incredibly frightened when the desiccation diagnosis is made. It is for this reason that every back pain sufferer needs to know all about intervertebral discs and how they age as part of their natural lives.
So what exactly is disc desiccation? Many of you are more familiar with the term degenerative disc disease. This diagnosis is used interchangeably with desiccation and describes a condition where the spinal discs lose moisture and their ability to hold moisture. Young and healthy discs are full of water content, much like a gel, but they change as the person ages. The results of desiccation are easily seen on virtually any type of advanced diagnostic imaging, including MRI or CT scan. The discs will become smaller and thinner, shrinking in diameter, thickness and circumference. In some cases, the outer disc wall will also degenerate, suffering from small holes called annular tears. While this all sounds very bad, it must be reinforced that these processes are not inherently painful or harmful and typically affect every adult to one degree or another in their lumbar and cervical spinal regions.
Desiccation also facilitates herniations, bulges, protrusions, protractions and ruptures of spinal discs. All these terms (and more) are used to describe conditions where the nucleus of the disc creates an abnormal bubble in the outer disc wall and in some cases, actually breaks through and leaks into the body cavity. I am sure that all of you have heard the various horror stories about herniated discs, but once again, there is often much ado about nothing. There is little or no clinical evidence linking herniations to chronic back pain in most cases. Herniations can enact symptoms in some patients, although these aches and pains are mostly temporary and not debilitating. In only a very few patients are herniated discs actually the root source of ongoing severe dorsopathy or related neurological effects.
So, basically desiccation is normal, but it helps to create the ideal environment for herniations to occur, which is also normal. This is why so many people have herniated discs in the lower lumbar region and the mid to lower cervical region. These are the areas of notable desiccation and the areas of the spine which must bend, flex and work the most. It is no coincidence that these are also the common areas of arthritic change in the spine.
When discs degenerate, the vertebral bodies become closer together and may touch end to end on occasion. This increased bone on bone friction causes the wearing away of protective cartilage and results in the condition known as osteoarthritis. This is the same form of arthritis which can (and often does) affect many of the major joints in the body, including the elbows, shoulders, hips, knees and hands. Most cases of osteoarthritic change are nothing to be concerned about and although some may enact small aches and pains, the condition is not conclusively linked to severe back pain in almost any case. The exception to the rule is when osteophytes, also known as bone spurs, form in particularly problematic areas of the spinal canal. These hard little nuggets of bone can truly impinge on the spinal cord, causing spinal stenosis, or the neuroforaminal openings, causing foraminal stenosis, and may require professional and even surgical treatment in some cases.
So, desiccation is the root universal condition which usually facilitates both osteoarthritis and herniated discs. However, none of these 3 conditions are the typical causes of chronic back pain, although they are mistakenly diagnosed as such in a great number of cases. Treatments for the various conditions are rarely successful, proving the error of the diagnostic conclusion, while therapies which do nothing to change the spinal structure often provide a lasting cure, further dispelling the myths of the structural nature of back pain based on Cartesian medial philosophy.
I always recommend that patients learn the facts about their diagnosed source of pain. With a bit of enlightened research, patients can understand the real facts about dorsopathy and why it rarely responds to medical treatment and especially surgery. For patients who have already tried everything without success, you have even more reason to become clued in to the truth. Continue on your present path and you are sure to become a victim of failed back surgery, if this cruel condition is not already your fate. Get back on the right road and a lasting cure may be just around the corner…