What is discogenic pain?

Discogenic pain is the one that occurs as a consequence of disc degeneration.

The intervertebral discs are a fundamental part of the structure of the human spine, at the cervical, dorsal and lumbar levels. These spinal discs are highly hydrated structures that are located between the vertebrae and their main function is to serve as shock absorbers for all the forces and impacts that pass through the spine. To do this, they must maintain their physiological structure, which consists of a nucleus pulposus and a fibrous ring.

Disc degeneration or discopathy is the term used for the process by which the disc alters its physiological structure and becomes unable to perform its function normally. In general, this is an evolutionary process that usually begins with the loss of its liquid content (disc dehydration) and, subsequently, causes the disc to gradually lose height. The most serious stage of this process is one in which the disc has lost all its hydrated content due to annular tears (tears in the fibrous ring) and its height has collapsed to the point where there is contact between two contiguous vertebrae.

Discogenic pain is one of the most frequent causes of low back pain in the population, with a benign cause in most cases and resolved with conservative medical and rehabilitative treatment.

Causes of discogenic pain

The primary cause of disc degeneration pain is aging. With age, the discs themselves suffer from wear and tear. In the human species, this disc degeneration is more marked than in other mammals because we walk upright on two feet (unlike most mammals who usually walk on all four). When walking on two legs, the load forces that affect our spine are much greater. Additionally, high-impact sports, such as basketball, jobs that include carrying heavy objects, or physically demanding activities, also promote disc wear.

However, there are multiple factors that favor and accelerate this disc wear. Perhaps two of the most important are use of tobacco and being overweight. Furthermore, there are many diseases have been shown to be related to the process of disc degeneration.

Other, less frequent, but no less important, causes can be injury, fracture, or medical conditions such as neoplastic processes.

Symptoms of discogenic pain

Discogenic pain is a pain of varying intensity located in the affected area (usually, the lower lumbar area). This pain, does not of itself, irradiate or extend to other areas, which differentiates it from lumbar disc herniation pain which usually takes the form of sciatica.

In addition, discogenic pain tends to be increased by the following factors:

  • A sitting position.
  • Bending over forwards.
  • Axial loading (force directed through the top of the head down through the spine)

In general, disc degeneration is a condition that does not usually cause neurological disorders such as loss of sensation or strength.

Diagnosis of discogenic pain

Two things are key for diagnosing discogenic pain: First, an interview with the patient, and a physical examination carried out by one of the specialists on our team.

After this, we will be able to proceed to the second step, consisting of imaging tests. There is a broad selection of imaging technologies available (x-rays, CT…) to use for diagnosing and gathering information on the disc degeneration. Perhaps the most useful today is Magnetic Resonance, but in many cases more imaging tests are required to finish studying each individual patient.

Treatment of discogenic pain

There are extensive types of treatment available for discogenic pain, addressing different stages. The first stage treatment option is conservative treatment, which consists of weight loss, exercise and physical therapy to strengthen the trunk and abdominal muscles, and specific changes in lifestyle, such as giving up smoking, among others.

Pharmacological treatment also has an important role in pain relief. There are various analgesic medications (anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, opiate derivatives ...) that are useful for reducing discogenic pain, including minimally invasive steroid injections. It is important that analgesic guidelines and patient monitoring be carried out by specialists in this type of pathology. 

Finally, there are several surgical alternatives for those individuals who, despite conservative treatment, still have discogenic pain. The classic technique consists of fusion or arthrodesis of the level affected by the discopathy. This surgery can be carried out with different materials, techniques or approaches, depending on each specific case. An alternative to fusion is arthroplasty surgery. This procedure consists of replacing the pathological disc with a prosthesis that mimics the structure and function of a healthy natural disc. 

Who are the doctors at Instituto Clavel who treat discogenic pain?

The following doctors are expert surgeons in treatment of discogenic pain.

Dr. Clavel
Dr. Català
Dr. Ríos
Dr. Montes
Dr. Màlaga

Sources

  • Kallewaard JW et al. Discogenic low back pain. Pain Pract 2010 Nov-Dec;10(6):560-79.
  • Engers A et al. Individual patient education for low back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Han 23;(1):CD004057.
  • Kim KS et al. Disc degeneration in the rabbit: a biomechanical and radiological comparison between four disc injury models. Spine (Phila Pa 1976) 2005 Jan 1;30(1):33-7.
  • Simmons ED et al. Radiographic assessment for patients with low back pain. Spine (Phila Pa 1976) 1995 Aug 15;20(16):1839-41

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