We all know that being overweight causes mechanical stress and wear and tear on the spine that leads to disc degeneration. What you might not know is that fat itself causes disc degeneration through certain proteins that are secreted by fat tissue.
Obesity causes disc degeneration in two ways – through inflammatory cytokines and atherosclerosis.
Researchers started thinking about this when they found obese women had increased levels of arthritis in their hands. Hands don’t generally bear enough weight to cause arthritis due to abnormal weight bearing, so there must be some other cause. Researchers also found that people with high BMI due to fat had more back problems than people with high BMI due to muscle.
This findings lead researchers to find that certain inflammatory chemicals released by fat – interleukin 1β, interleukin 6, c-reactive protein, and TNF-α, and leptin all cause disc breakdown.
Further, atherosclerosis from obesity can create vascular insufficiency at the vertebral end plate which will reduce the diffusion of oxygen, glucose and sulfates into the disc. The disc needs these compounds to remain healthy, and without them the disc will degenerate.
Additionally, advanced glycation end products may contribute to disc desiccation. AGEs are very common in people with diabetes.
So the big takeaway is that proteins secreted by fat (remember it’s an endocrine tissue), and other obesity related metabolic issues can lead to disc degeneration.