Aging women suffer more lumbar disc degeneration, MRI study shows

Lumbar MRI for low-back pain may be under constant suspicion of overutilization, but findings from a Chinese study suggest it’s often appropriate for a very substantial subset of the general population: postmenopausal women.

The research was published online June 12 in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society.

A team at Wenzhou Medical University in the province of Zhejiang compared lumbar MRI findings from 1,566 symptomatic women—pre-, peri- and postmenopausal—with those from 1,382 age-matched symptomatic men over a 40-month period ending in October 2016.

After adjusting for age, height and weight, the researchers found that young, age-matched men were more susceptible to disc degeneration than premenopausal women.

However, the postmenopausal women developed more severe disc degeneration than not only age-matched men but also than premenopausal and perimenopausal women.

Further, dividing the postmenopausal women into subgroups by every five years since menopause, the researchers found that the severity of disc degeneration was significantly greater in the decade-and-a-half after menopause than longer after, when disc degeneration tended to level off.

“Menopause is associated with lumbar disc degeneration,” the authors conclude. “The association occurred in the first 15 years since menopause, suggesting estrogen deficiency might be a risk factor of disc degeneration of the lumbar spine.”

They call for more studies to determine the extent of menopause’s role versus that of aging in causing the painful condition.