The discs that cushion the spine are made up of cartilage which usually becomes thinner, weaker, and less hydrated as we age. The consequences for the spine can include disc bulging, disc herniation, and spinal slippage, resulting in a loss of height, pinched nerves, and even spinal cord compression. This gradual deterioration of the intervertebral discs is exacerbated by wear and tear, inflammation, and acute spinal trauma. This condition for which many patients are referred to Laser Spine Institute is known as degenerative disc disease.
The medical term for this slow process of wear on the discs is spondylosis, and most patients discover that they have it through an X-Ray or MRI. Spondylosis involves a narrowing of the normal spaces between vertebrae, giving the spinal nerves less room and sometimes causing the bones in the spine to rub against each other, leading to osteophyte growth. MRI scans may also reveal dehydration in the intervertebral discs in many cases, and this causes the discs to become brittle and easily torn or otherwise damaged.
Degenerative disc disease can occur in a single disc but is more commonly found to varying degrees in a number of spinal discs, particularly those which are more mobile, such as in the lumbar and cervical spine. Pain from degenerative disc disease does not necessarily manifest as back pain, since nerve compression can cause symptoms of radiculopathy such as tingling in the hands, arms, or even in the thighs, legs, and feet. Lumbago describes degenerative disc disease in the lower spine, which is most commonly symptomatic in those between the ages of 30 and 50.
Where degenerative disc disease has been diagnosed, it is usually followed by recommendations to limit exacerbating activities, which may include certain sporting pursuits or work-related tasks. Taking care when carrying out heavy lifting or other strenuous endeavors is also important so as to not incur acute disc herniation or slippage. Some patients are recommended bed rest so as to allow discs a chance to heal. In most cases, however, staying mobile is the preferred treatment for degenerative disc disease as this helps maintain flexibility, and strength, and avoids the loss of muscle.
Conservative treatment for degenerative disc disease involves pain medications, non-surgical decompression, the use of anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy to strengthen the spine. Where pain persists, worsens, or is accompanied by weakness, loss of bladder or bowel control, or other signs of severe nerve damage or spinal cord compression, patients will usually require surgery to address the problems. After referral to Laser Spine Institute, patients with degenerative disc disease may be deemed good candidates for an endoscopic procedure, such as a microdiscectomy, to remove disc fragments trapping the nerves. Some patients are able, instead, to manage their symptoms using appropriate conservative treatments, with a range of experienced pain management specialists available to devise tailored treatment programs.
The decision to undergo surgery for degenerative disc disease depends on factors such as age, overall health, and the degree of activity restriction and pain caused by the condition. Patients may be prescribed physical therapy both before and after back surgery for degenerative disc disease so as to improve strength and the outcome of surgery. Physical therapy can help relax the muscles in the back and decrease the incidence of muscle spasms and cramps. Improvements in posture may also help slow down degenerative changes in the spine. When neck or lower back pain becomes intolerable or persists without relief, a complimentary initial MRI review at Laser Spine Institute can determine if a minimally invasive spine procedure could relieve symptoms of degenerative disc disease.