The pathophysiology of intervertebral disc degeneration has been extensively studied. Various factors have been suggested as influencing its aetiology, including mechanical factors, such as compressive loading, shear stress and vibration, as well as ageing, genetic, systemic and toxic factors, which can lead to degeneration of the disc through biochemical reactions. How are these factors linked? What is their individual importance? There is no clear evidence indicating whether ageing in the presence of repetitive injury or repetitive injury in the absence of ageing plays a greater role in the degenerative process. Mechanical factors can trigger biochemical reactions which, in turn, may promote the normal biological changes of ageing, which can also be accelerated by genetic factors. Degradation of the molecular structure of the disc during ageing renders it more susceptible to superimposed mechanical injuries.
This review supports the theory that degeneration of the disc has a complex multifactorial aetiology. Which factors initiate the events in the degenerative cascade is a question that remains unanswered, but most evidence points to an age-related process influenced primarily by mechanical and genetic factors.