Effects of running on disc health – Is it ok?

Effects of running on disc health – Is it ok?

Both disc injuries and running injuries are two categories we see a lot at Perth Allied Health Clinic. Knowing the affects of both on the spine can help us diagnose and treat effectively.

How do discs stay healthy?

Intervertebral disc (IVD) health is an important factor in overall spine health and the incidence of low back pain, as a result it is a big factor to be considered by Chiropractors and Physiotherapists at Perth Allied Health Clinic. Other tissues in the body such as muscles receive nutrients and remove wastes through good blood supply by the cardiovascular system. Discs however are largely avascular in nature. This means they receive their nutrients via bulk flow of fluid into and out of the tissues as well as through diffusion.

Multiple factors have been hypothesized to affect nutrient flow and thus disc health. For example, physical activity level and other lifestyle factors, such as high amounts of sedentary time, both in occupational (work related) and recreational time. On the other side of the coin disc loading results in compression of the disc leads to expulsion of bulk fluid, while distraction encourages uptake of fluid and nutrients.

What happens to discs as we age?

As an intervertebral disc ages, its morphology changes and it loses its ability to attract water, rendering it more susceptible to injury. After the age of 30 there is an increased rate of normal age-related disc degeneration and the peak for these degenerative changes occurs around the age of 50. It is a widely held position that there is nothing that can be done to stop this “degeneration” and that it is just a normal part of ageing. However new research points to the fact that living an active lifestyle not only can reduce low back pain but specifically decrease the rate at which these degenerative changes occur. Specifically, the positive effect running has on disc health.

Is running good or bad for my discs?

This may seem like an obvious question however there has been evidence to support both sides of this argument in the past. As a result, running is an activity that is of particular interest in examining disc health, as there are substantial compression and rotational forces placed on the lumbar disc with running, which likely impact disc health.

The 2 theories opposing each other relating to how running affects disc health are as follows:

  • The mechanical overload produced by running produces localised trauma and damage to discs which exceeds to ability of the disc to heal itself, which leads to damage to discs and as a result increased rate of degeneration.
  • The cyclic loading of discs during running (from compression) is beneficial for disc health and leads to hypertrophic changes (increased size) which in turn makes the disc stronger. Much like building a muscle through weight training.

A new study by Mitchell et al in 2020 aimed to see which of these theories was indeed true, and some results from the study are highlighted below:

  • Compared to controls (non-runners) runners had on average 20-30% greater disc height
  • Pfirrman score (no not a typo, essentially is a score given to determine the amount of disc degeneration has occurred) was significantly lower in runners (lower = less degeneration)
  • Longer T2 times (assesses hydration of the disc) were associated with runners.

The results of this study clearly show the positive benefits of running on disc health and by extension spinal health. It is shown that the more kilometres run per week and the longer period of years of running further aids disc health.

So, yes running is good for your discs! Get out there and get moving, your body will thank you!

If you are struggling with pain do not hesitate to get an assessment by one of our Chiropractors or Physiotherapists at Perth Allied Health Clinic who are experts in the spine and will help you get back to your best!

Leave a Reply