Degenerative spine conditions — how the spine ages over time
A degenerative spine diagnosis isn’t uncommon, but it should not be taken lightly. The spine is made up of a complex series of muscles, vertebrae, ligaments and intervertebral discs — components that can deteriorate over time. The discs are particularly important because they are designed to act as shock absorbers for the spine. In addition to allowing for spinal flexibility, the discs prevent the bony vertebra from grinding against one another.
As you grow older, the years of tension and stress that your spine endures can take a toll on the intervertebral discs and ultimately lead to degenerative spine disorders. Age-related changes can also cause the discs to become drier and weaker, making them more prone to damage. Consequently, the intervertebral discs deteriorate, making them less effective. Because the spine is a narrow column filled with sensitive nerve tissue, any change in the structural integrity or placement of the discs can potentially impinge upon adjacent spinal nerves, which is often the underlying cause of painful degenerative spine symptoms.
Common types of degenerative spine disease
The first thing to understand about spinal degeneration is that it is entirely unavoidable. As you grow older, the anatomical components that support your neck and back will naturally wear down as a result of years of use. This isn’t something to be especially concerned about; it is part of the reason why most people associate growing older with slowing down. As we age, we become less flexible and more prone to neck and back pain — this is normal. However, when spinal deterioration advances to the point that symptoms interfere with regular activity, treatment may be warranted. Here are some examples of the most common degenerative spine conditions that can prove to be problematic:
- Spinal osteoarthritis — Also referred to as degenerative spinal arthritis, this condition involves the breakdown of cartilage located on the spinal facet joints. When osteoarthritis occurs, cartilage wears away, allowing bone-on-bone contact to occur within the joint. This can cause inflammation, the formation of bone spurs and nerve irritation.
- Degenerative disc disease — A condition that describes the breakdown of intervertebral discs. As we grow older, the intervertebral discs dehydrate and the proteins that keep them healthy break down. As the discs deteriorate, they become less effective at supporting the vertebrae. This can cause the vertebrae to become slightly displaced and put pressure on the nerve roots that travel in between the vertebrae, or press on the spinal cord itself.
- Bulging discs — A bulging disc refers to an intervertebral disc that has swelled beyond its normal parameters between adjacent vertebral bodies. The enlarged disc remains structurally intact but, due to increased pressure, has expanded into the spinal column. A bulging disc is not inherently symptomatic, but when the disc wall comes in contact with the spinal cord or any nearby nerve infrastructure, painful symptoms can develop.
- Herniated discs — A herniated disc refers to an intervertebral disc that has ruptured, allowing the inner gel-like disc material to seep into the spinal canal through a tear in the disc wall. This condition can be painful if the nerves that innervate the disc become irritated as a result of the rupture or if the extruded disc material irritates the spinal nerves. Herniated discs might develop as a result of an injury, but can also be caused by disc weakening that comes with age.
- Spondylolisthesis — Spondylolisthesis is a condition indicated by the presence of vertebral misalignment. In an otherwise healthy spine, the spinal column has a natural s-curve that evenly distributes weight along its length. With spondylolisthesis, one of the vertebral bodies in the spinal column slides out of its normal position. This condition is described in degrees of severity, with Grade 1 spondylolisthesis representing 0-25 percent slippage and Grade IV spondylolisthesis indicating 75-100 percent vertebral slippage.
- Degenerative scoliosis — While most people equate scoliosis with adolescence, degenerative scoliosis is a spine condition that can develop later in life. When scoliosis occurs, it causes a side-to-side curvature of the spine, which can result in a hunched posture and a change in gait, among other symptoms.
- Bone spurs — Bone spurs are smooth protrusions of excess bone that frequently accompany arthritic deterioration. While these growths of bone are asymptomatic in and of themselves, the excess material can become problematic if it comes in contact with a nearby nerve. Bone spurs also often form in the aftermath of an injury.
- Spinal stenosis — Spinal stenosis describes the narrowing of the spinal canal. This isn’t necessarily problematic by itself, but when the canal space becomes constricted, the spinal cord and other nerve structures can be irritated. Common causes of spinal stenosis include the presence of herniated disc material, bone spurs and other tissue.
- Foraminal stenosis — Foraminal stenosis describes the narrowing of the passageways through which nerve roots enter and exit the spinal canal. Like spinal stenosis, this condition isn’t symptomatic by itself, but if the space becomes so narrowed that the nerves are irritated, a variety of painful symptoms may develop. Often, this condition causes discomfort to travel the length of the affected nerve, potentially causing pain to develop in areas seemingly unrelated to the spine.
- Pinched nerves — A pinched spinal nerve is a common condition that most people will experience on occasion as they grow older. When the symptoms of a pinched nerve don’t abate on their own over several days, they could be the byproduct of one of the aforementioned degenerative spine conditions. Alleviating the symptoms is contingent on identifying and addressing the cause of the nerve constriction.
- Sciatica — Sciatica is a term that is frequently used as a catch-all to describe the symptoms that arise from the inflammation and irritation of the sciatic nerve. This nerve originates at the base of the spinal cord and extends downward through the lower body before ending near the feet. Most commonly, sciatica is associated with chronic lower back and leg pain.
Treatment options for a degenerative spine
Following a degenerative spine diagnosis, the issues can often be successfully treated with a conservative rehabilitation routine, which might include physical therapy, hot and cold compresses or over-the-counter pain medication. If the symptoms worsen, your physician may prescribe stronger medication or anti-inflammatory steroid injections. Some patients also find relief in the form of alternative therapies such as restorative yoga, acupuncture and chiropractic manipulation.
Conservative and alternative degenerative spine treatment options do not work for every patient, but the surgeons at Laser Spine Institute may be able to help those patients who are unable to find nonsurgical relief. We offer minimally invasive, outpatient procedures that are performed using state-of-the-art technology. Our team of medical experts has helped tens of thousands of people from around the world find relief from neck and back pain, with the added benefit of smaller incisions compared to traditional open spine surgery. Contact us today to talk about your degenerative spine diagnosis and to receive a review of your MRI.