Nothing in the body happens in a vacuum. Every single systems interacts with every other system. People at increased risk for heart disease are at increased risk of colon cancer. Diabetes increases the risk for Alzheimers and Parkinsons. So what about disc degeneration / arthritis of the lumbar spine?
First of all, we need to understand what contributes to disc degeneration in the lumbar spine. Several factors have been identified. Genetics may play a role, but it’s likely to be the smaller role.
There are some strong associations between cardiovascular disease and disc degeneration. The inside 2/3 of the disc does not have its own blood supply, but rather gets its nutrients from small blood vessels in the bone of the vertebral body above and below. These small blood vessels may very likely be what links heart disease and disc degeneration.
Early atherosclerosis (plaquing of the arteries) due to cardiovascular disease, will reduce blood flow through these small blood vessels and thereby reduce nutrient delivery to the inside of the discs. In addition, the outer 1/3, which does have its own direct blood supply, will also be affected by this plaquing.
Less nutrients means less ability to heal which means a greater likelihood of breaking down faster. This leads to early onset disc degeneration. So what does this really mean?
It means that disc degeneration, because it is occuring throughout the body, is not going to be limited to only one area of the spine. Supporting this, this study finds links between lumbar disc degeneration and cervical disc degeneration. As a matter of fact, in those patients who had lumbar disc degeneration, almost every one (98%) had cervical disc degeneration.
However, in the control group who had neither low back or neck pain, 88.5% had disc degeneration in the cervical spine. Wow! That’s a really high number. Keep in mind these people were pain free, and yet the vast majority had “problems” found on MRI. Consider this next time your primary care doctor orders an MRI and refers you for a surgical consult…