Background: Degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine is common, with severe disease increasing the risk for chronic low back pain. This cross-sectional study examined whether disc degeneration is representative of a 'whole-organ' pathology, by examining its association with bone (vertebral endplate) and soft tissue (paraspinal muscle fat) abnormalities.
Methods: Seventy-two community-based individuals unselected for low back pain, had Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Lumbosacral disc degeneration was determined via the Pfirrmann grading system, a validated method to assess the intervertebral disc, distinguishing the nucleus and annulus, the signal intensity and the height of the intervertebral disc. Modic change and high paraspinal muscle fat content was also measured from MRI.
Results: Severe disc degeneration was associated, or tended to be associated with type 2 Modic change from L2 to L5 (OR range 3.5 to 25.3, p ≤ 0.06). Moreover, severe disc degeneration at all intervertebral levels was associated with or tended to be associated with high fat content of the paraspinal muscles (OR range 3.7 to 14.3, p ≤ 0.09).
Conclusion: These data demonstrate that disc degeneration of the lumbar spine is commonly accompanied by Modic change and high fat content of paraspinal muscles, thus representing a 'whole-organ' pathology. Longitudinal studies are required to determine the temporal relationship between these structural abnormalities. Understanding this may have the potential to identify novel targets for the treatment and prevention of lumbosacral disc degeneration.
Keywords: Disc degeneration; Fat; Intervertebral disc; Lumbar; Modic; Muscle.