What Is Black Disc?

The ability of discs in the spine to absorb water is diminished among people with degenerative disc disease.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2014
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Black disc is a term used to describe the appearance of deteriorated spinal discs on medical imaging studies. Damage to the disks causes them to look darkened, making them very easy to identify when a radiologist examines the scans. Disc deterioration is extremely common. Most older adults have some damage in their spinal discs and onset of deterioration can occur earlier in people with certain risk factors. It is not possible to cure degenerated spinal discs, but treatments can be provided to manage them.

In people with degenerative disk disease, the ability of the spinal discs to absorb water is reduced. Over time, the discs dessicate or dry out. This makes it difficult for them to absorb shock and they provide less protection to the spine. The discs will grow tough and fibrous over time, eventually stabilizing in a degenerated state. People with degenerated discs can experience back pain as a result of the damage, although they will not have radicular pain, pain caused by damage to the nerves originating from the spine.

On a medical imaging study, the degenerated disk will appear flattened and dark. Discs in the early stages of dessication may be grayish, while a fully black disc is completely dessicated. Many people do not experience symptoms in the early phases, except for the occasional twinges of back pain. Someone with black disc can also have more severe back pain caused by the wear and tear on the spine.

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If a radiologist identifies black disc, patients do have some treatment options. Patients in pain may consider spinal surgery to fuse and stabilize the spine, reducing the pressures on the dessicated disc. Medications can be used to control pain, and sometimes gentle physical therapy can strengthen the spine and reduce some of the painful symptoms. Exercise like swimming that does not jar the spine may be recommended to allow people to stay fit without injuring themselves.

Smokers are at increased risk of developing black disc, as are athletes because they push their bodies through repeated hard physical exercise. Some environmental exposures have also been linked with the degeneration of spinal discs. People who work in factories and physically demanding industries may develop dessicated discs and associated back pain along with other problems at an earlier age than would otherwise be expected. It is possible to develop additional spinal problems beyond black disc and these problems may cause other symptoms, like numbness, tingling, and pain in the extremities.

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hamje32
Post 5

@strawCake - I agree with you about swimming. A friend of mine has a back condition as a result of a degenerated disc, and he swims every day religiously for an hour as part of his regimen to manage the condition.

I think this makes a lot more sense than simply taking pain medication, which simply masks the underlying cause in my opinion.

SkyWhisperer
Post 4

@allenJo - It’s good that she got an early start, and I agree that there are alternative treatments for these kinds of conditions.

Some people with herniated conditions believe that disc surgery should be your main alternative, but that is not necessarily true.

You have to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord, otherwise the condition will continue after surgery, in my opinion, even if to a somewhat lesser degree.

allenJo
Post 3

My wife works as a pharmacy technician, a job which requires her to stand all day. She complained about back pain and finally went to the doctor.

The X-ray revealed that she had bulging cervical disc. Fortunately, it was not seriously deteriorated, and it was not yet characterized as “black disc,” but still it was a cause for concern.

She started going to a chiropractor who used a device to help decompress her discs and relieve muscle tension in the back, especially in the neck area. It has helped tremendously.

In addition, she recently bought an inversion table. This thing is basically a small bed that flips you upside down, allowing you to relieve some of the tension on the back and help with the decompression.

strawCake
Post 2

@starrynight - I'm always interested in looking at x-rays too. I guess I'm just naturally curious.

It just seems so unfortunate that there isn't any cure for disc degeneration! I know it can cause a lot of pain and really decrease an older persons quality of life (or a younger persons, as the case may be.)

I'm not surprised that swimming is recommended for people with this problem though. I know it's supposed to be really good for you, yet really easy on the body.

starrynight
Post 1

My mom has disc degeneration, and the last time she had an x-ray done, they let her keep it. I got a chance to take a look at it, and I was surprised to see that a few of her discs were black!

Now, I'm not an expert. But I always thought that bones showed up white on an x-ray! However, my moms doctor had explained to her the reason that her discs appeared this way on the x-ray.

They're actually considering doing spinal surgery on her, but she hasn't made a decision yet.

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