Degenerative discs

Degenerative discs are a common source of neck and back pain for many adults. As the name indicates, this condition often occurs with the natural degeneration of the spine over time.

Think of the anatomy of the spine: There are small bones (vertebrae) that make up the structure of the spine and support the body’s weight and movement. In between the vertebrae are discs that act as cushions for the vertebrae to bend and move freely without colliding with each other. These discs are filled with jellylike fluid to allow the proper height and space between the vertebrae, while still allowing some flexibility as the vertebrae bend and pivot.

Over time, the vertebrae of the spine undergo added pressure from weight gain and constant movement. This pressure not only compresses the vertebrae, but it also pinches the discs in between the vertebrae. As a disc is pinched, the inner fluid pushes against the tough outer layer of the disc. The outer layer pushes the fluid back in to maintain the disc’s shape and height. Eventually, the elasticity in the outer disc layer fades, so when the inner disc fluid pushes against the outer layer, the outer layer gives way and either flattens and expands or breaks open. These two examples are a bulging disc and a herniated disc, respectively.

Symptoms of a degenerative disc

While disc degeneration is a common spine condition, not everyone knows they have it. In fact, many times a mildly damaged disc will heal on its own over time without symptoms or any indication that it is damaged.

Symptoms arise when a damaged disc impacts a nerve root in the nearby spinal canal. If a disc becomes herniated and protrudes into the spinal canal, for example, it can pinch or irritate the nearby nerves. Or, a thinning disc can become fragmented, allowing pieces to break off and irritate nerve tissue in the spinal canal, as is often the case with foraminal stenosis.

When disc degeneration occurs, the patient can experience symptoms, which may include:

  • Intense, local back or neck pain
  • Traveling pain along the nerve
  • Muscle weakness, numbness and tingling of the extremities
  • The sensation of pins and needles
  • Sciatica
  • Stiffness or a loss of mobility and flexibility
  • Bone spur growth

Treatments for a degenerative disc

After the diagnosis of degenerative disc disease has been confirmed by a physician or spine care specialist, a treatment regimen will be discussed to help reduce your symptoms. Many patients will begin with conservative treatments, such as chiropractic therapy, physical therapy and stretches to lengthen the spine and take pressure off the damaged disc to allow it to heal. You can consult your physician about pain medication to help relieve your discomfort while you wait for the disc to heal.

However, if you are still experiencing pain after several months of conservative treatment, it may be time to consider the minimally invasive discectomy procedure at Laser Spine Institute. This procedure removes a small portion of the damaged disc without disrupting the surrounding muscles and ligaments near the spine. Once the portion of the disc is removed, the pinched nerve root will be released, which should ease any pain or symptoms.

Some patients may be recommended to undergo our minimally invasive discectomy and stabilization procedure. This surgery treats more advanced degenerative disc conditions. During the procedure, the surgeon will remove the entire damaged disc, thereby releasing the pinched nerve root in the spine. To stabilize the spine, the surgeon will then insert an artificial disc and bone grafts (if needed) into the empty space.

Because our procedures are performed through small incisions that do not alter the surrounding muscles, our minimally invasive surgery is a safer and effective alternative to traditional open back surgery^. Our stabilization surgery also has a higher patient satisfaction score than traditional open back fusion because our surgery does not require metal cages and rods to fuse the spine.

For more information about the advantages of our minimally invasive spine surgery, or to have one of our spine care experts review your MRI or CT scan, contact Laser Spine Institute today.