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Disc Dehydration: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Diagnosis

What is Disc Dehydration?

Disc Dehydration is quite common medical condition concerning the discs of the spine. It is commonly known by the name of degenerative disc disease. Anatomically speaking, the disc in the spine acts as a spacer between the vertebrae of the spine and the nerves and also acts as a shock absorber which allows the spine to move, function and facilitate motion and the ability of the individual to lift, bend, and carry objects without doing any damage to the spine or the nerves which surround it.(1)

These discs are filled with a gel like substance which act as a lubricant and allow the disc to function normally. With passage of time and due to wear and tear of everyday work, there is significant loss of this substance within the disc which causes the disc to lose its fluidity. This is what is called as Disc Dehydration. This occurs mostly in the lumbar and cervical spines which are the spines used most by an individual.

What is Disc Dehydration?

Disc Dehydration causes the spine to become stiff with resultant pain and loss of range of motion of the spine. If the lumbar disc gets dehydrated then the individual will experience back pain which may or may not radiate down the legs, difficulty moving from a sitting to a standing position, and sometimes even ambulating. If the cervical disc gets dehydrated, then the individual may experience pain and stiffness in and around the neck region with pain radiating down the arms to the fingers. Osteoarthritis, disc herniation, and spinal stenosis are some of the other conditions that can be caused by Disc Dehydration.

What Causes Disc Dehydration?

As stated above, the spinal discs are filled with gel like substance. There is a significant loss of this substance during the day to day activities but this gel like substance gets replenished at night when the individual is asleep so that the discs are ready for work normally the next day. Sometimes what happens is that the substance which is lost during the day is not able to be fully replenished at night while sleeping which leads to some amount of loss of the lubricant.

Over the passage of time, this gradual decline of the gel like substance present in the disc reaches a level when there is very little lubricant left in the disc. This is what leads to Disc Dehydration. As the discs get dehydrated they start to protrude outwards and thus put pressure on the vertebrae and this is when problems with pain and loss of functions start.

Disc Dehydration normally occurs when some part of the disc is damaged or injured which does not allow the disc to fully absorb the fluid that it requires to maintain normal daily function resulting in Disc Dehydration.

What are the Symptoms of Disc Dehydration?

Pain and stiffness are the first sign and symptom of Disc Dehydration. This gradually progresses to restricted range of motion of either the lumbar or the cervical spine.

Symptoms of Lumbar Disc Dehydration

If the lumbar spine is involved, then the individual will find it difficult to bend, lift, or pivot. The individual will also find it difficult to stand from a sitting position or go from a standing to sitting position without having pain or discomfort.

Symptoms of Cervical Disc Dehydration

In case of cervical disc dehydration, the person will experience symptoms of difficulty moving the neck from one side to the other without pain and will have a difficult time sitting and working on a computer or do other tasks without discomfort and pain. The pain caused due to Disc Dehydration may become severe in intensity as the condition progresses and the disc starts to protrude and starts to put pressure on the adjacent vertebrae.

When the protruding disc puts excess pressure on the vertebrae, it then starts impinging on the nerves causing radicular pain going down the lower extremities in cases of lumbar spine and upper extremities in cases of cervical spine.

How is Disc Dehydration Diagnosed?

To begin with, a detailed history of the patient is taken as to the nature and duration of the symptoms. The physician may ask whether the patient has any problems with sitting, standing, bending, or twisting. He or she may also ask whether there is any radiating pain. The physician may also ask about any recent or remote history of an injury to the spinal column.

Physical examination will be performed closely inspecting the spinal column looking for areas of tenderness and pain. The physician will also check for range of motion of the back if the lumbar spine is involved or neck if the cervical spine is involved.

A neurological examination may also be performed looking for areas of abnormal reflexes confirming neuritic involvement. Additionally, radiological studies in the form of x-ray, MRI, or CT scan may be done to look at the internal structures of the spine and see if any damage has been done to the vertebrae by Disc Dehydration.(2)

Once these studies are completed and all other conditions that may have similar symptoms are ruled out confirms the diagnosis of Disc Dehydration.

Treatment for Disc Dehydration

Conservative approach is the most preferred way to treat Disc Dehydration. For pain relief, the patient can apply ice on the affected area for 15-20 minutes two to three times a day alternating it with heat. It should be noted here that both ice and heat should not be applied simultaneously as it can lead to formation of blisters. The patient can use NSAIDs in the form of ibuprofen or Tylenol for pain relief and to calm down the inflammation. If the patient does not get adequate pain relief with these measures then stronger pain medications may be prescribed by the treating physician.(3)

If the patient develops conditions like disc herniations or disc bulge due to Disc Dehydration then appropriate treatments for those conditions will be formulated by the treating physician, which may include aggressive physical therapy for strengthening, flexibility, and to improve range of motion and in some cases surgery may also be required to treat the condition caused by Disc Dehydration.

At times, surgery is also done for Disc Dehydration to remove the damaged disc and the adjacent levels are fused together. In very rare cases, an artificial disc may be implanted.


Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:June 5, 2019

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