A collapsed disc is an intervertebral disc that has lost its normal height due to deterioration of its fibrous outer wall. While this degeneration can be caused by traumatic injury, it is more frequently a result of wear and tear as a regular part of the aging process. Diminished disc height is most common within the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine, where the vertebrae bear significant body weight and are subjected to a wide range of stress-inducing motion. A collapsed disc does not necessarily produce symptoms; only if reduced disc height leads to an impingement of a nerve root or the spinal cord, will pain, tingling, numbness or muscle weakness occur.
The mechanics of a disc collapse
Intervertebral discs are natural shock absorbers between the bony vertebrae. Discs have two main components, an outer fibro-elastic containment rim (annulus fibrosus) and an inner soft gelatinous core (nucleus pulposus). When axial loading pressure occurs along the spinal column, the central gelatinous core of the disc squeezes outward against the fibro-elastic containment rim of the disc. The elastic recoil of the containment wall pushes the gelatinous core back into position, reestablishing the height and shape of the disc. Through the years as a person ages, normal daily activity causes repeated loading of the disc. Tiny rips may develop in the fibers of the fibro-elastic outer containment wall. This causes some loss of the elasticity or recoil ability of the outer wall.
Eventually, the outer disc containment wall can no longer push the central core material back into shape as effectively. The outer containment wall sags, bulges or collapses. The main way a collapsed disc produces pain and other symptoms is by reducing the space available for components of the central and peripheral nervous system – the spinal cord and nerve roots. Less space means a greater likelihood of nerve compression. In addition, the decreased disc height reduces the ability of the disc to act as a cushion between vertebrae, creating the potential for bone to rub against bone causing development of osteophytes or bone spurs. Osteophytes may irritate nerve endings, particularly within intervertebral joints.
Treating the symptoms of a collapsed disc
While disc degeneration is irreversible, resulting symptoms can usually be treated successfully using pain medication, epidural steroid injections, exercise and other non-surgical methods. However, if chronic pain or other nerve compression symptoms persist after several weeks of conservative treatment, contact Laser Spine Institute to learn about the benefits of a minimally invasive, outpatient procedure performed using advanced technology.