The intervertebral discs that cushion the vertebrae tend to wear down over time, whether it’s because of dehydration within the nucleus or degeneration of the cartilaginous fibers of the outer wall. As this occurs, the space between the vertebrae decreases, and the bones are exposed to increased stress. To compensate for this additional load, bony growths form along the edges of the vertebrae above or below the disc. These growths are called osteophytes, or bone spurs, and the condition is known as disc osteophyte complex.
Wolff’s law of bone transformation
The phenomenon of disc osteophytes was explained in the late 19th century, when German surgeon and anatomist Julius Wolff developed Wolff’s law of bone transformation, which states that bone in a healthy person remodels itself internally and externally to adapt to an increased or decreased load. During gradual disc degeneration, the manifestation of Wolff’s law is a series of extra nodules of bone.
Causes of disc degeneration
Osteophytes develop from degenerating joint cartilage or along calcifying spinal ligaments, as well as along the edges of vertebral bone under increased stress. They are caused by:
- Natural aging
- Degenerative disc disease
- Improper use
Treatment for disc osteophytes
Most osteophytes exhibit no symptoms. However, bone spurs within the spine do present a potential problem for nerve roots and the spinal cord. If they become too large or develop in the wrong spot, nerve compression can result, accompanied by symptoms that include pain, tingling, numbness and muscle weakness. These symptoms usually respond well to conservative treatment, such as using pain medication or physical therapy. When chronic pain persists despite weeks of conservative treatment, surgery might become an option. In these cases, Laser Spine Institute offers a minimally invasive, outpatient alternative to traditional open back surgery. Contact LSI to learn more or for a free review of an MRI or CT scan.