A study examined the relationship between lumbar disc degeneration and instability in spinal segments of three groups of volunteers and found that factors of spinal instability were closely related to disc height and the age of the study subjects and that disc height was intimately associated with age and spinal instability and was the most consistently affiliated parameter of those examined.
Patients with lower back pain (LBP) and/or sciatica often have evident disc degeneration in MRI their images, especially elderly patients. Because these patients may demonstrate no other neurological symptoms, it is commonly assumed specific evidence of LBP –aside from degeneration and the age of the patient—may not exist. Excessive motion surrounding the affected disc segment can cause LBP and spinal instability, and previous studies on the relationship between instability and LBP have been inconsistent in their findings—in part, because imaging of the subjects was performed while the patients were in the static supine position.
Study Design Utilized Flexion-Extension Standing Postured Imaging Reviews
The authors of the current study were building upon their previous research utilizing images that had been performed on patients during flexion-extension standing postures to examine the relationship between spinal instability and disc degeneration of the L4/L5 motion segment. Because disc degeneration may not be associated with LBP at all stages, the authors of the study devised a method of measurement to examine different types of segmental degeneration and any relationship it may have with spinal instability.
The subjects of the study were LBP or leg pain outpatients who had received radiologic and MRI imaging within a two-month interval during the past three years. Of the 447 patients included in the study, 268 were men, and 179 were women. Their ages ranged from 10 to 86 years, with an average age of roughly 54 years-old.
Instability was measured at the L4/L5 spinal segments during neutral, extension, and flexion postured images and was then analyzed and categorized into three variable types: Anterior slip at L4 onto L5 while in neutral position (SN), sagittal translation (ST), and segmental angulation (SA). Measurements were taken of each slip, and the results were evaluated and noted to determine the degree of apparent instability.
The disc segments were evaluated radiologically for degeneration by looking at and comparing disc height, spur formation of the anterior vertebral edges, endplate sclerosis, and evidence of vacuum phenomenon in the films taken during flexion-extension. Sixty-eight of the subjects had high disc height (HDH), 212 patients were considered to have medium disc height (MDH), and 67 patients were categorized as having low disc height (LDH). Bony spur measurements were taken, and the presence of endplate sclerosis and vacuum phenomenon were noted as either being present or not. The level of disc degeneration was evaluated by MRI and graded from 1 to 5, as “normal,” to “severe” degeneration. The patients were divided into eight groups based upon the severity of their spinal instability, and the relationship between disc height, spur size, endplate sclerosis, vacuum phenomenon, and degeneration in the MRI’s was noted in relation to the types of instability present.
The compared data indicated a link between instability, age, and a reduction in disc height. Though increased age and a loss of disc height have long been suspected to be linked to degeneration and instability of the spine, this study uses MRI to evaluate that relationship more closely, demonstrating that a lower disc height was associated at least a 3mm slippage and a higher disc height was associated with subjects who were younger in age, with larger angulation in the spinal segments. Instability was prevalent in older patients with prominent anterior spur formation and/or vacuum phenomenon.
Age and relative spinal stability were intimately related to disc height, and this instability was progressive in nature and occurred over decades.
KEYWORDS: Correlation Between LBP, Age-related Degeneration, and Spinal Instability, relationship between lumbar disc degeneration and instability, comparing disc height, spur formation of the anterior vertebral edges, endplate sclerosis, and evidence of vacuum phenomenon, link between instability, age, and a reduction in disc height, degeneration and instability of the spine