Collapsed discs and aging

The term “collapsed disc” is used to describe a number of spinal conditions that cause the discs in the spine to lose height and shape. These conditions, such as a herniated disc, bulging disc and prolapsed disc, could also be collectively referred to as “degenerative disc disease.”

Collapsed discs are often called degenerative discs because the main cause of this condition is the natural degeneration, or aging, of the spine. As the spine ages and weakens over time, the discs in the spine undergo pressure and are at a greater risk of damaging. However, by understanding why age and spine degeneration plays such a large role in the development of degenerative discs, you can begin to make lifestyle choices to help promote overall spine health and possibly lower your risk of a damaged disc.

How can aging cause a disc to collapse?

Every day our spine undergoes pressure from weight, motion and strain placed on our body. Years of wear and tear (even from everyday activities like sitting, standing and walking) can cause the elements of the spine to break down.

In particular, these age-related changes can affect the discs that help support the spine. Discs act as natural shock absorbers between the bony vertebrae. Each disc has two main components: an elastic, tough outer layer and an inner soft, gelatinous core.

When pressure from the surrounding vertebrae due to weight gain and repetitive motion squeezes down on the discs, the inner disc core presses against the elastic outer layer, trying to expand outward under the pressure. The elasticity of the disc’s outer layer holds everything in place, maintaining the proper shape and structure of the spine. However, after years of constant pressure, small tears can begin to develop in the disc’s outer layer. Eventually, the disc’s elasticity may give way and allow the disc to expand and flatten, sometimes tearing along the outer layer and letting the inner disc fluid leak into the spinal canal.

Several factors can increase the risk of developing a collapsed disc, including the following:

  • Weight — Carrying extra weight applies unnecessary pressure to the spine. The neck and back have to work extra hard to support excess body weight.
  • Smoking — Smoking tobacco products can be very harmful to the body because it decreases oxygen levels in the blood. This can cause the discs to lose out on necessary nutrients.
  • Physical activity — Strenuous occupations that require constant lifting, twisting, bending or sitting can apply extra stress to the spine. High-impact sports such as hockey and football can also apply extra wear and tear to the spine.

How is a collapsed disc treated?

Since aging is a key contributing factor in disc collapse, everyone experiences some loss of disc height. Only when a nearby nerve becomes compressed due to damaged disc material do symptoms begin.

When symptoms do arise, many physicians recommend a series of conservative treatments to reduce the pain of a pinched nerve. Conservative therapies, such as pain medications and physical therapy, are often effective for mildly damaged discs, and the full effects of relief are usually felt after several months of treatment.

Patients who don’t find relief from conservative treatments may require surgery. The minimally invasive spine surgery at Laser Spine Institute offers patients a safer and effective alternative to traditional open back surgery to treat a collapsed or damaged disc. Our minimally invasive decompression surgery removes a small portion of the damaged disc from the pinched nerve, while our stabilization surgery replaces the damaged disc with an artificial one to reduce pain and symptoms. For many patients, our decompression surgery is an appropriate method of treatment. However, serious disc damage may require a stabilization procedure to bring stability to the spine.

To see if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive spine surgery, contact Laser Spine Institute and request a review of your MRI report or CT scan.