Do runners have stronger intervertebral discs?

Although aging changes of the disc appear to be inevitable, identification of activities and agents that accelerate these changes may help decrease the rate and severity of disc degeneration; and recent work suggests that methods can be developed that will regenerate disc tissue. (Buckwalter, 1995)

Recently, there was a journal article published that was widely shared on social media among physiotherapists. The title of the paper is “Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc.” This is an open access paper, that means anyone can get access to the full text article.

As my blog is directed at non-healthcare professionals who do not read scientific journals, this is a quick summary of the important findings:

  • Long distance runners and joggers have stronger and healthier-looking intervertebral discs than non-athletic individuals, as seen from MRI scans.
  • Males and females between the age of 25-35 years old are seperated into 3 distinct groups: Long distance runners (>50km/week), joggers (20-40km/week) and non-athletic population who do not exercise. 5 years history of their current physical activity level must be maintained.
  • Findings from this study provide support that the lumbar intervertebral disc can adapt, grow tougher and stronger with a specific exercise dosage
  • An ‘anabolic window’ exists: fast walking or slow running at a speed of 2metres/second, or 7.2km/hour
  • A ‘ceiling effect’ for running seem to exist for the beneficial adaptation of the disc: it doesn’t mean that running >50km/week is better than 20-40km/week

Important facts to know before you begin to tell everybody that a new method has been discovered to strengthen your spinal discs:

  • This research study is a correlation study, a type of research that seeks to find a relationship between 2 variables. in this study they are ‘running’ and ‘strength of intervertebral disc’. This means to find out if an increase or decrease in 1 variable (running) will result in the change of the other variable (strength of intervertebral disc)
  • It is important to know that at this point, direct causation between running and stronger interventebral disc cannot be inferred from a correlation study, but there is a link between these 2 variables.
  • This study is likely to pave the way for new trials to be done to test out the effects of such loading to the spine.

My thoughts:

While it is good to know what may happen to people who do long term long distance running, it may also be beneficial to understand what are the short term effects of running in the intervertebral disc. In this study, 30 young elite runners ran for 9 miles at a relatively easy pace and immediately after a run, there is consistent loss of interverterbral disc fluid resulting in an immediate reduction in total height. This loss is significantly greater than your usual activities of daily living. However, this loss of disc height can be easily attenuated with periods of relatively low load (lying down). It is always after a long period of rest (sleeping) that we regain the fullness of the intervertebral discs.

Unfortunately, running has not been shown to be able to regenerate aged spines, and this is something that many people are seeking. Many people with back pain have been told that they have ‘a spine of a 70 year old man’, ‘degenerative disc disease’, ‘spondylosis’. However, it doesn’t mean that one cannot run with an old spine. You must have seen a senior runner right?

senior runner

Remember, pain and degenerative discs do not correlate very well and this fact has been shown in multiple research papers. The presence of disc abnormalities seen in the scans of pain-free people is well known. When you do not have lower back pain, the chances of finding all 5 intervertebral discs healthy is only 36%, based on the research published in New England Journal of Medicine. Yes healthy looking discs are great, but ageing disc that are painfree are not that bad either! Your discs usually start to show signs of ageing with you reach the age of 30.

The publication of this important paper on intervertebral disc strengthening is also an excellent one to dispel the myth that the load from running will eventually lead to spinal degeneration due to ‘overuse’. Contary to popular belief, loading the spine seems to be associated with stronger discs!

Thanks for reading!

References

Buckwalter J.A. (1995). Aging and degeneration of the human intervertebral disc. Spine, 20(11), 1307-14.

Belavý D.L. et al. (2017). Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc. Sci Rep. 7,45975. doi: 10.1038/srep45975

White T. L. and Malone T. R. (1990). Effects of running on intervertebral disc height. J Orthop Sports Phy Ther 12:4, 139-146.

Jensen et al. (1994). Magnetic resonance imaging of the lumbar spine in people without back pain. N Engl J Med, 331(2), 69-73. doi:10.1056/NEJM199407143310201

“Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc.”, as reported on Deakin University

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