Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is very common and is not always related to pain. However, if a patient is experiencing back pain, it is more likely the patient does have DDD or is in the process of acquiring it. Our models help explain that DDD is often a process and often intertwined with aging and spinal pain conditions.

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is at the roots of Dynamic Disc Designs (ddd). Learning and teaching the underlying mechanisms of pain and the strategies to relieve and live with this common condition is what we strive to do. Bringing the research to the forefront, in front of the patient and doctor with a dynamic teaching tool.

degenerative, MRI, low back pain

A retrospective magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) analysis 1 of lumbar degenerative changes in 283 patients with chronic low back pain (CLBP) found more severe disc degeneration (DD), lower disc height, and more extreme disc displacement at the L4–L5 and L5-S1 of patients with work-related CLBP. The results of the study help to elucidate MRI-visible changes and clinical attributes of work-related CLBP.

What’s at Stake

Lower back pain (LBP) affects up to 84 percent of the world population at some point in life and can contribute to acute or chronic disability in up to 12 percent of those affected. As of 2016, LBP was the leading cause of years lived with a disability, and the U.S. economic burden of LBP is estimated to be somewhere between 84.1 billion to 624.8 billion dollars. Understanding the various stages and degenerative characteristics of LBP can help with appropriate and timely treatment, which may help to reduce cases of CLBP. MRI allows physicians to recognize pathologies, so they can appropriately plan treatment for their LBP patients.

Study Design

The study involved the retrospective review of medical records of adults who had sought treatment for CLBP that had lasted for a period of greater than three months. Inclusion requirements included MRI scans of the entire lumbar spine and clinical lumbar evaluations. Excluded were patients under 18, or those whose LBP was intermittent or had not occurred every day for at least three months. Those experiencing pain that outranked their LBP elsewhere in their body were also excluded from the study, as were patients who could not have an MRI, who had a lumbar infection, spinal trauma, tumor, deformities, or spontaneous septic spondylodiscitis or epidural abscess, previous back surgery, osteoarthritis of the hip, and significant psychological disturbances.

Subject demographics were collected and analyzed, including their occupations, how many hours per week they worked, heavy lifting or lengthy desk sitting involved in their jobs, and the age, sex, body mass index, education level, smoking history, and duration of their LBP. Their LBP scores were recorded using a Visual Analog Scale (VAS) from 0 to 10 (no pain to worst pain). The Oswestry Disability Index (ODI) was used to rank each subject’s functional capacity, where those with a lower percentage were rated healthier.

Imaging Analysis Results

Pre-treatment MRIs of three positions—neutral, flexion, and extension—were performed on each subject by two experienced radiologists and then independently evaluated by an orthopedic surgeon. The subjects were grouped according to their MRI results. The four groups included: normal disc (ND), degenerative disc (DD), bulging disc (BD), and herniated disc (HD). Statistical analysis was performed using special software, and clinically-significant value was assigned. Of the 283 patients with CLBP taking part in the study, 110 were women, and 173 were men, and they ranged in age from 18 to 80, with a mean age of 41.8. The post-MRI groups included 37 subjects in the ND group, 85 in the DD group, 123 in the BD group, and 38 in the HD group. The mean age of the patients in the ND group was significantly lower (31.9) than that of the DD group patients (42.8), HD group (39.3), and the BD group (44.9). The ratio of male to female across all groups was 6:4, but the ratio in the HD group was 84.2 % male to 15.8 % female. The duration of CLBP across all groups was roughly 25 months, but when analyzed group-to-group, it progressively ranged from 15 to 25 months, with the ND group at the lowest range, followed by the DD, BD, and HD groups. The duration of pain was significantly increased from the ND group to the BD group. There were few differences in age, smoking history, or education levels across the groups.

The subjects were further categorized into 10 groups based on their occupations. The three groups that were most prominently represented in the ND, DD, BD, and HD groups were manual workers, desk workers, and technicians. They were similarly represented within their groups. Working hours were also similar across these groups, between 59.7 and 63.2 hours per week. The percentage of subjects who were required to manually handle weighty objects at work was significantly lower than those with no manual handling. The number of working hours spent sitting at a desk was much higher in the DD group, as compared to the other three groups.

When comparing clinical CLBP, the VAS pain scores in the DD, BD, and HD groups were much higher than those of the ND group members. The ODI scores of these three groups were also higher than those of the ND group, and those in the HD group were significantly higher than subjects in the DD and BD groups, indicating less functionality.

The MRI looked for the degree of DD in the neutral, flexion, and extension positions, as well as the vertebral height (anterior and posterior), slipping distance of spondylolisthesis in all three positions, height of the L1-S1 discs, disc bulge or herniation distance, AP diameter of the spinal canal, and translational motion. The data was analyzed and classified indicating the severity of disfunction or damage. The worst degeneration was at the L-4/L-5 and L-5/S-1 level, followed in severity by L-3/L-4.

The disc bulge distances of L-3/L-4 and L-4/L-5 were higher in the BD and HD subject groups. Also, the distance of L-4/L-5 was much higher in the HD group than in the BD group in the neutral position. The distances of L-4/L-5 were much higher in the BD and HD groups than in the ND and DD groups during flexion position, and that of L-3/L-4 was much higher in the HD group than in the ND and DD groups. The distances of L-4/L-5 and L-5/S-1 were much higher in the BD and HD groups during extension MRIs.


This study used MRI to analyze and compare four types of lumbar disc degeneration in patients with CLBP and found that the ND group represented a significantly younger demographic than that of the other three group members. This suggests that age is a likely contributor to DD in CLBP. The subjects in the BD group had a much longer mean pain duration than those in the ND group, suggesting a less successful clinical future outcome for those patients. There appeared to be little-to-no association between BMI and smoking history and CLBP in any of the subjects involved in this study.

There was a positive correlation between hours worked sitting at a desk—with those in the BD and HD groups working on average more than 60 hours per week and those in the ND and DD groups working fewer hours. Interestingly, the data collected indicated that most CLBP patients did not perform heavy manual labor at work and were highly educated—suggesting a strong connection between office work and CLBP. The MRI scans showed that lower lumbar disc segments (L-4/L-5 and L-5/S-1) were the most significantly degenerated in the CLBP patients, with lower disc height and displacement.




properties of the annulus, shear force

An in vivo study 1 of the effects of shear force loading applied to the L5-L6 spinal segment of lab rats revealed histological evidence of IVD degeneration in the unit and surrounding discs of sacrificed study rats that had been exposed to shear force via a custom-designed loading device, while no such evidence was evident in the post-mortem rat control group. The results of the study showed that shear force, applied at .33 MPa (a lower level of compressive stress than previously shown to cause IVD degeneration in rat tail discs), creates degeneration of rat IVDs. This information may be instrumental in providing preventative and treatment-oriented care for people who may be at risk of developing IVD degeneration.

The Study of Shear Force

Researchers tested the hypothesis that sustained shear force on a spinal segment would create IVD degeneration in rat lumbar spines. They used 15 young male rats divided into three groups—one sham control group, and two experimental loading groups that would be exposed to loading for one, and two weeks. The shear loading device used was created especially for the experiment and was made of stainless steel. It was applied to the L5 and L6 vertebral rat bones and delivered a static shear load of up to 4 N.

When the shear loading experiment was completed (1 week, and 2 weeks), the rats were sacrificed. The lumbar segments were removed, viewed microscopically, and tested histologically. A degenerative score from 0 to 3 was assigned each sample, with “0” representing no changes, “1” showing minimal changes, “2” representative of samples with moderate changes, and “3” assigned to those samples showing severe changes, including some with NP disappearance. The slides were blinded and randomized to prevent observer bias.


All the rats involved in the study survived the surgery and post-op period, with no signs of distress. Each of the rats that underwent shear loading had IVD degeneration in most of their lumbar discs, across all levels. The sham control rats, however, demonstrated no degeneration after the experiment.

There were differing levels of degeneration in the IVDs of the shear stress-exposed rats. After the shear loading, the posterior annulus of the exposed rats curved into the dorsal area of the NP, creating a reduction in demarcation in these samples and a disappearance of notochordal cells. The anterior NP remnants were disaggregated, collapsing into smaller sections composed of multiple cells, which, along with the NP, later disappeared. There was also a blending of NP, AF, and CE, and it was difficult to see where one began and another ended. The lamellar wall of the inner and middle annulus dissolved, creating disorganization in the AF.


Isolating the effects of different loading modes on IVD degeneration and response is helpful in developing a more complete understanding of IVD biomechanics. Understanding the consequences of shear force applied during compressive spinal loads through in vitro studies can elucidate how shear applied during bending and torsion loading can cause damage to the IVD at the microstructural level and contribute to AF degeneration and failure.

The results of this in vivo study on the disc segments of rats undergoing shear force stress on the L5-L6 IVD segment demonstrated evidence of degenerative changes in all the rats exposed to shear force, while no degeneration occurred in the rat sham control group. The disc damage noted in the experiment groups occurred not only at the L5-L6 levels, but was also evident at adjacent levels (L3-L4, L4-L5, L6-S1). This is further confirmation that the effects of shear force can create damage, proteoglycan depletion, NP content loss and/or collapse, and severe degeneration to disc segments within one week of exposure.


3d modeling, endplate lesion

An October 2018 study compared MRI’s of 966 lower back pain (LBP) patients to introduce a simplified, reliable method of classification for common endplate lesions. The study also noted associations between endplate lesions and variables, including age, rate of disc degeneration, sex, and Modic changes. The researchers then demonstrated the new system’s reliability by repeated observational rating over a period of days, using outside raters evaluating a percentage of the total sample results. The demographic and physiological findings of the study were largely in agreement with previous IVD endplate lesion studies but also added novel findings that had not previously been published.

basivertebral nerve, bone marrow edema, modic changes

Modic vertebra model- midsagittal cut exposing the basivertebral nerve.

The Study

The subjects in the study were all LBP sufferers under the age of 70, excluding patients with a history of back surgery, spondylodiscitis, or vertebral fractures. Data including age and sex were collected on all patients, and images were scanned and evaluated by an experienced radiologist.

A scoring and classification system for the Lumbar IVD spaces was noted on the images, with the descriptions:

  • Normal—Physiological curvature of both endplates, without the detection of any visual lesions in any of the sagittal MRI IVD space slices.
  • Wavy/Irregular—Curvature in at least one of the endplates, without detectable IVD lesions.
  • Notched—The presence of at least one circular small or V-shaped lesion on an MRI saggital slice.
  • Schmort’s Node—Clearly evident vertebral endplate deep focal defect, where the endplate is rounded, with a smooth margin
  • Fracture—Thickened bone fragment at the edge of an endplate, or any evident fracture of the endplate with similarly-sized fragments

A sampling of the image data was also evaluated multiple times over a period of two days by independent raters to ensure observer reliability. To determine how often each type of endplate lesion appeared associated with disc degeneration and alterations of the MRI signals, subgroups of the study subjects were created, and comparisons were made based on age and sex. A scatter-plot chart was created to track Modic changes, and the relative percentages were calculated and identified against an established threshold.



The findings indicated minimal association between patient age at the time of the scan and disc degeneration, as well as minimal Modic changes in older patients, as opposed to entire population studied. The most common types of endplate lesion observed were the “notched” and “Schmorl’s Node” type lesions, and both were more common in male patients than in females. Few of the patients studied had “Wavy/irregular” or “fracture” lesions, which occurred in nearly equal numbers of male and female subjects.

There was a strongly evident correlation between disc degeneration and endplate defects across all LBP subjects in the study. All lesion types increased in all IVD levels where disc degeneration was evident. There was a significant increase in “wavy/irregular” endplate types whenever severe disc degeneration was present. This can be considered a reliable marker for the process of extreme disc degeneration.

Signal alterations were found to be associated with endplate lesions, specifically in “notched,” “wavy/irregular,” and “Schmorl’s Node” endplates. There were nearly twice as many notches in Modic changes of types 1 or 2 corner signal alterations. Schmorl’s nodes showed even more evidence of association.



Though this study was conducted with the intention of developing a reliable method of endplate defect classification in LBP patients and to find correlations in the distribution of LBP by analyzing a large population of subjects via MRI, previous studies have indicated a correlation between back pain and lesions—something this study did not specifically address.

The results of this study agreed with previous studies that indicated male LBP patients are more likely to have IVD lesions than female patients, though similar lesion-levels were observed in male and female patients who showed evidence of severe disc degeneration, as is found in Schmorl’s nodes and in those with disc fractures.

Most of the patients showed no evidence of endplate lesions on the lumbar MRIs. Of those who who did have lesions, most (18.7 %) experienced them only in a single IVD level, and males were more likely than females (20.7 % to 16.7 %) to show evidence of lesions. Progressively fewer subjects had lesions involving more IVD levels.

There was a very slight correlation between age and lesions in this and some previous studies. That correlation appears to be stronger in the female LBP population than in males—a new observation that has not been discussed in previous studies.

The association between endplate defects and disc degeneration was evident, especially where “wavy/irregular” endplates occurred, indicating severe degeneration of the discs. Signal alterations and endplate lesions also showed a positive correlation, specifically in “wavy/irregular,” “notched,” endplates. This association was significantly evident in Schmorl’s nodes.


Disc pressure, spine, patient education, models

A study 1examining cadaveric intervertebral discs (IVD) indicates disc degeneration is more closely related to reduced pressure associated with mechanical loading than levels of endplate porosity or thickness. Though endplate porosity increases as the IVD degenerates, the results of the study demonstrated that IVD degeneration is caused by reduced pressure in the nucleus—not the reduction of nutrient transport caused by endplate thickening and a reduction of porosity—and that mechanical loading from nearby discs contributes to endplate porosity in age-related disc degeneration.

disc pressure, degeneration

Disc pressure reduction with degeneration.

What’s at Stake?

Understanding the role of IVD endplate thickness and porosity and the role of mechanical loading, age, and sex on determining the efficacy of endplate function is important in the future diagnosis and treatment of disc degeneration. The enervated endplates, when damaged or degenerated, can cause back pain. When properly functioning, they are responsible for the transport of nutrients to the IVD, regulate fluid pressure and metabolite transport between the body of the vertebrae and its nucleus. Disruption in this process can contribute to disc degeneration, inflammation in the vertebrae, and possible infection to the disc.

The level of porosity inside the bony endplates affects the amount of nutrients delivered to the nucleus and the mechanical stability of the vertebrae. A porous endplate allows more nutrients and pressure-regulating fluid to flow into the nucleus of the IVD. A thickened, less porous endplate reduces the nutrient and fluid flow, but creates more structural stability in the IVD, reducing the potential for injury. The proper balance and porosity of the IVD unit is integral to the overall health of the disc, but understanding the mechanism by which the degenerative process occurs is essential in anticipating how a body’s mechanical functions might contribute to a disruption of disc health.

The Study

Researchers compared the relative thickness and porosity of IVD endplates in 40 cadaveric motion segments from 23 cadavers between the ages 48 to 98 years old. The segments were subjected to compression, and the intradiscal stresses were measured and analyzed. Stress profiles were created to determine the average nucleus pressure, as well as the maximum anterior and posterior annulus pressure. The segments were dissected, and discs with endplates on each side were scanned and analyzed for their thickness and porosity in the midsagittal regions. An average value was calculated for the anterior, central, and posterior regions of each of the endplates. A macroscopic and microscopic examination determined the scope and level of disc degeneration in each segment.

The Results

The results of the data sets indicated that nucleus pressure and posterior and anterior annular stresses decreased as the disc degeneration levels increased. There was a slight increase of intradiscal pressure (IDP) with age, but there was no maximum stress increase of the annulus with age. Lower spinal levels were associated with a decrease in IDP.

The endplates were thinner nearer the nucleus, with a 14 % reduction in thickness in the inferior endplates. An analysis of the averaged data set from the three regions of both endplates showed no association between age or level of degeneration and endplate thickness, but there was an inverse relationship between the disc degeneration and endplate thickness. There was a strong relationship between endplate thickness and IDP in an analysis of adjacent discs.

Endplate porosity was more pronounced in the center of the endplate and became less so opposite the annulus. This porosity was not age-dependent but—with the exception of the anterior endplate region— was positively correlated with disc degeneration levels. The levels of endplate porosity was inversely associated with adjacent disc pressure and stress.


Endplate thickness was the major determinant of endplate porosity levels. Disc degeneration and mechanical loading measures were also indicated as predictors. The most apparent predictors of endplate thickness (after porosity) included disc pressure and spinal level. IDP was the dominant predictor of disc degeneration.

The study found that disc degeneration was associated most often by disc stress, rather than porosity of the endplate or its thickness. As the levels of disc degeneration increased, porosity of the endplate increased. The porosity of the adjacent disc was inversely affected in terms of pressure and mechanical stress.

Wolff’s law posits that the body’s bone mass and design will compensate for the pressures of mechanical stresses and subsequent anatomical deformation, strengthening the endplates and vertebrae that are subjected to the most physical activity. Reduced loading can thin endplates that are not subjected to pressure. This eventually leads to them becoming more porous. The results of this study affirm this theory, as the lower central endplate regions were harder, thicker, and stronger than those of the anterior-posterior endplate regions. There is an apparent compromise between the strength of the outer bone and the porosity of the central endplate, which allows for stability and nutrient flow where they are needed the most.

There is an evident drop in nucleus pressure during progressive disc degeneration. The reduction of fluid pressure lessons the endplate’s thickness and makes it more porous, leading to bone degeneration and loss. The bone is more likely to buckle and further degrade as it becomes more porous and less stable, reducing nucleus pressure further. This cycle of abnormal pressure reduction is responsible for the continuation of the degenerative process—not the reduced metabolite transport. There is an increased risk of bone fracture with increased porosity and endplate thinning. A fracture would increase stress on the IVD and contribute to the cycle of degeneration, in spite of the increased availability of nutrients that can reach the nucleus through the endplate’s porosity.



A 2018 study 1 of resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) of the cervical spinal cord in fibromyalgia patients and control subjects found there was greater ventral and lesser dorsal Mean ALFF of the cervical spinal cord in patients with fibromyalgia, compared to the control group subjects. The results of the study may indicate that fibromyalgia patients experience enhanced sensitization of nerve responses that could be responsible, in part, for the discomfort and fatigue associated with the disorder.

What’s at Stake

Patients with fibromyalgia report the experience of physical pain throughout the body, as well as cognitive problems, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. The symptoms may be a result of irregularity of the central nervous system (CNS), including central sensitization and possibly a decreased ability to modulate pain responses. Signals to and from pain receptors may be misdirected or skewed in patients with fibromyalgia, creating an altered response to nociceptive and non-nociceptive signals.

Previous imaging studies have demonstrated altered CNS activity or structure and irregular brain activity in response to painful and non-painful stimuli in fibromyalgia patients.  Functional connectivity, networks, and low frequency oscillatory power have been measured through resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI), but these studies did little to elucidate the underlying CNS processes that occur in patients with fibromyalgia. Because of the complexity of the CNS signals in the spine, it was necessary to conduct a comparative rs-MRI of healthy controls and fibromyalgia patients to observe alterations of oscillatory frequencies, functional CNS connectivity, and analyze the graph metrics of the fibromyalgia patients.

The Study

The study subjects included 16 fibromyalgia patients whose symptoms met the American College of Rheumatology inclusion criteria for fibromyalgia and 17 healthy participants. Subjects with MRI contraindications, taking opioids for pain or mood-altering medications, and those with depression or anxiety disorder were excluded, as were pregnant or nursing females. All subjects were screened for MRI contraindications and filled out questionnaires regarding their psychological and behavioral state, diagnostic pain, sensory, and fatigue criteria prior to the study.  Further testing assessed the subjects’ sensory, pain, cold pressure response, mechanical hyperalgesia, and mechanical temporal responses.

Each of the subjects was queried regarding their levels of pain prior to, and after their fMRI scans, using a scale of 0 to 10 to grade their pain. Separate amplitude of low frequency fluctuations (ALFF) Measures of Mean were calculated for each study subject across all voxels of the cervical spine data. Normalized images were analyzed for differences, and the significance of the findings was assessed. Gray and white matter Mean ALFF was also analyzed and compared in the study groups. The functional organization and connectivity of spinal cord networks was also observed and compared in both study groups, as other studies have suggested that bilateral motor, sensory, and dorsal horn functional connectivity networks was altered during thermal stimulation in humans and after a spinal cord injury in non-human primates. The researchers in this study wanted to investigate if disrupted spinal cord processing and functional organization may be responsible for some symptoms of fibromyalgia.


Results & Conclusions

The fibromyalgia patients had higher measures of fatigue, sensory hypersensitivity, and widespread pain than the control group. Each of the fibromyalgia patients had right shoulder pain, and most experienced arm pain, undermining the research expectation that the patients’ sensitization would be central and found throughout the CNS as a result of their altered cervical spinal cord activity.

The ALFF spinal cord low frequency oscillatory power study indicated a greater Mean ALFF in the ventral hemi-cord of the fibromyalgia patients. The dorsal quadrants of fibromyalgia patients showed lesser Mean ALFF. Mean ALFF was higher in gray matter than in white matter in the patients.

Overall, the study demonstrated that the cervical spinal cord of the fibromyalgia patients had altered patterns of rs-fMRI low frequency power—greater regional Mean ALFF in the ventral, and lesser in the dorsal spinal cord. The most pronounced difference was noted inside a small cluster in the right dorsal quadrant, at the border between the dorsal horn gray and white matter. There was a strong correlation between levels of patient fatigue reported and the noted differences in Mean ALFF. These observations support the idea of regional differences in nociceptive and non-nociceptive CNS processing pathways in patients with fibromyalgia.

While there is a need for future study of local spinal cord modulatory circuits, these findings suggest that a combination of reduced CNS inhibition, coupled with an increase in dorsal horn excitation could be responsible for the irregular modulation of sensory and pain signals experienced by patients with fibromyalgia. Nociceptive signals might be over-transmitted by spinothalmic projection neurons, and/or a similar process could cause the under-transmission of non-nociceptive signals. Irregular spinal cord signal modulations (decreased, or increased) could increase or lessen signals of any type to any part of the body, which might explain the experience of uncomfortable hot or cold sensations in patients with fibromyalgia. There was also a very strong correlation between the Mean ALFF of the fibromyalgia patients and their fatigue symptom measures.


properties of the annulus, disc model

Researchers examined the effects of endplate fractures  1 on the mechanical properties of the annulus fibrosis (AF) in porcine spinal segments and found that laminate adhesion strength was significantly compromised in the fractured spines. The findings suggest that microdamage may occur beyond the vertebra, into the interlamellar matrix of the AF—information that could be helpful in the diagnosis and treatment of adolescent spinal growth-plate fractures.

The Study

The authors of this study wished to examine the effects of high-intensity pressurization on the intervertebral discs (IVD) to see how it effected the mechanical and physiological properties of the posterior AF. They used 28 fresh, recently-thawed functional porcine spinal units from 14 porcine specimens that were approximately six months old.  Control units were also used as a comparative measure against the units subjected to pressure.

A hydraulic pump and high-pressure inflation needle were used to pump hydraulic fluid into the IVD of specimens. The researchers were careful not to pierce the AF in the samples. Pressure in the needle was measured by a pressure transducer and converted from analogue to digital at 2048 Hz. The needle was subsequently removed, and the vertebral bodies were assessed for damage. Although fractured endplates created an audible ‘pop,’ the condition was only confirmed after dissection of the IVD. The control-group segments were not tested for fractures. Measurements were taken following the dissection, and the end-plate area was quantified. Bilayer AF samples were then dissected and tested for tensile endurance in the circumferential direction. A second multi-layered sample was then dissected and subjected to delamination and a peel test. Mathematical ratios were then plotted to mark the variable results for each sample.


End-plate size measurements remained consistent across the control and fracture group samples. Bilayer stiffness, toe-region stretch ratio and stress, and stress at 30% stretch were consistent in the control and fracture group samples. However, there was a clinically-significant variance in peel strength—but not peel strength variability— between the two groups. In the fracture group, the peel strength was 31 percent lower than in the control group. Dissection and manual delamination were significantly easier in the fracture group of samples, as well.


The results of this study indicate that growth-plate fracture damage may not be limited to the vertebra and may cause microdamage in the nearby AF. This was indicated by the reduction of laminate adhesion strength in the posterior AF of the fracture IVD samples subjected to pressure in the tests. This information should be taken into account when practitioners are examining and treating adolescent or childhood vertebral fractures involving the endplates.


KEYWORDS: damage during spinal growth-plate fractures, effects of endplate fractures on the mechanical properties of the annulus fibrosis, effects of high-intensity pressurization on the intervertebral discs, mechanical and physiological properties of the posterior AF, delamination and a peel test, Bilayer stiffness, toe-region stretch ratio and stress


A recent study  1 mapped the rate of water diffusion in intervertebral discs (IVD) of lower back pain (LBP) patients using MRI and a software program to develop an apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC), or in vivo water proton measurement, shortly after spinal manipulation on the subjects. The results of the study indicate a short-term increase in apparent diffusion could be responsible for the immediate improvements in pain and mobility after a spinal manipulation, though chronic LBP sufferers, whose fissured and ruptured discs allow for more diffusion than typical healthy discs, may be less likely to experience the immediate benefits of mobilization than their acute LBP-suffering counterparts.


The Study

Eleven women and five men diagnosed with acute idiopathic LBP were recruited from a physical therapy practice over a six-month period. Their average age was 46 years-old, and they were included in the study based upon a shared complaint of acute LBP or stiffness of a duration less than six weeks, less pain days than non-pain days, with at least one asymptomatic month between the current and previous LBP episodes. Patients were excluded from the study if they suffered from chronic LBP, were resistant to spinal manipulation, had suffered a spinal fracture, felt pain radiating below the knee, previous spinal surgery, had osteoporosis, were pregnant, had any sort of metal implants that might interfere with the MRI machine, suffered from mental health problems, obesity, claustrophobia, substance abuse or cognitive disability.

The subjects received an explanation of the procedure and completed questionnaires about their levels of neuropathy and LBP prior to having their lumbar region scanned via MRI. After the initial scan, a spinal mobilization by an Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapist (OMPT) was performed in an adjacent room, with a scale beneath the OMPT’s feet measuring the weight change during the PA mobilization. Within the hour, another MRI scan was taken of the patients, and they were asked to answer a series of questions to rate their pain and mobility levels, post-treatment. The entire process took roughly 90 minutes per patient.

The images were analyzed visually and through a data software program in relation to each participant’s rate of a water molecule and nutrient diffusion and the sequences of diffusion pre-and post-manipulation. The images were interpreted by a single investigator and radiologist, and the ADC was calculated and verified. Clinical pain and mobility changes were noted and combined with the MRI changes before and after the PA mobilization computations were achieved.


There was a clinically-significant increase in ADC values across all anatomical levels, except for L2-S1 and L2-L3. The biggest changes occurred at L3-L4, and L4-L5. The pain ratings also saw a significant reduction post-mobilization across the subjects after mobilization. These results agree with previous similar study findings, but they offer new insights into acute LBP diffusion and that of older study subjects than in previous studies. Dr. Fryer’s research was referenced in this paper. Click To Tweet The findings of this study may indicate that the phenomenon of mobilization may not be responsible for the improvement of discogenic pain and increased water diffusion, but it is clear that pain, mobility, and diffusion are linked, and mobilization during the acute phases of LBP can temporarily provide increased flow to the IVD, allowing it to expand and decrease pressure and stress on the surrounding nerves. The improved fluid-flow may also help to remove obstructions, irritants, and debris from the IVD, which could also improve function and pain levels, post-manipulation.

Mobilization during the acute phases of LBP can temporarily provide increased flow to the IVD, allowing it to expand and decrease pressure and stress on the surrounding nerves. Click To Tweet

Though there was an overall four percent reduction in ADC between typical and slightly degenerated IVDs, the subjects with more severe degeneration had five percent higher levels of diffusion—probably due to fluids collecting in the fissures in the nucleus, created by the disc degeneration. Thus, spinal thrust significantly increased ADC values for those with mild or no degeneration but was less effective in those with more degeneration.

KEYWORDS: Spinal Mobilization Credited to Increased Apparent Diffusion, in vivo water proton measurement, shortly after spinal manipulation, short-term increase in apparent diffusion could be responsible for the immediate improvements in pain and mobility after a spinal manipulation, mobilization during the acute phases of LBP can temporarily provide increased flow to the IVD