In a recent study in Australia, healthy individuals with different exercise habits – no sport, joggers and long distance runners – had MRI scans to compare their intervertebral spinal discs (IVD). In the running groups, the IVDs had a better composition and were thicker than in the no sport group. This is the first human study to show that exercise can strengthen spinal IVDs. It provides a starting point for designing exercise programs which may help prevent back pain.
Back pain is an important health problem. Degeneration of the intervertebral discs (IVD) between the spinal vertebrae is a key factor contributing to back pain. Understanding more about how to improve and maintain IVD health could help in back pain prevention. Whilst there is good information about what activities can damage the IVD (compression or bending & twisting of the spine), less is known about what regular activities can strengthen the IVD. In addition, because the cells in the IVD have a low turnover rate, it is not clear whether it is possible to produce a beneficial effect on them in the normal course of a human lifespan.
Researchers at Deakin University (Victoria, Australia) reporting in Science Reports, investigated whether people who run regularly showed better IVD tissue quality on MRI scans of their IVDs, than people who do not partake in regular exercise, but were otherwise healthy. A total of 79 healthy men and women between 25-35 years old were recruited to the study in three groups – no sport (no regular sporting activity in last 5 years), joggers (20-40 km per week for at least 5 years) and long distance runners (over 50 km per week for at least 5 years). The scans of the running groups showed significantly better IVD composition (higher hydration and proteoglycan content) than those in the no sport group. Long-distance runners also had significantly thicker IVDs compared to those in the non-sport group.
To better understand what amount and type of physical activity are beneficial for IVD, study participants were fitted with a monitor to measure their patterns of physical activity for 8 days. The total amount of physical activity was not related to IVD tissue characteristics. However physical activity within a certain intensity range was related to improved IVD health. A follow up investigation showed that fast walking or slow running at 2 m/s produced activity levels within the beneficial range, but slow walking, fast running and high impact jumping did not. This suggests there is a “window” of activity which is beneficial to the IVDs.
This is the first human study to show that exercise can be beneficial to IVDs. Whilst further investigation is needed, the findings support the view that certain types of exercise can improve IVD composition. Understanding how the IVDs respond to different levels of activity will allow better exercise guidelines which may in turn help in the prevention and management of back pain.
Written By: Julie McShane
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