How to treat degenerative changes in the spine

Degenerative changes in the spine develop over time and can affect many different components of the neck and back. For example, as you grow older, the cartilage discs that serve as shock absorbers between the bony vertebrae begin to break down. This occurs due to water loss in the normally spongy discs, which can lead to bulging, cracks or even tears in a disc’s tough, exterior shell. These initial degenerative changes in the spine typically do not cause severe pain. However, in some instances, disc tissue may pinch a spinal nerve, causing pain, numbness, weakness, muscle spasms and tingling in the neck, back and extremities.

Other age-related changes can affect the spine’s facet joints, ligaments, muscles and other parts of the spine, causing some people to experience debilitating symptoms that can keep them from going about even simple daily activities, like walking the dog or driving a car. It’s important to consult with your doctor about any symptoms you may be experiencing in order to receive an accurate diagnosis that will lead to the best treatment plan for your specific condition.

Common symptoms of spine degeneration

The symptoms of degenerative changes in the neck or back can vary, depending on factors such as where in the spine the deterioration is occurring, how much it has progressed, which spinal components are affected and the overall health and fitness of the individual patient. Early degenerative changes can begin in a person’s spine before the age of 20. These mild changes typically go undetected because they cause few, if any, noticeable symptoms. Then, as the gradual breakdown of spinal components continues, the person may experience occasional discomfort, such as brief periods of stiffness or soreness. As the deterioration progresses, symptoms may include chronic pain and muscle weakness. The more severe cases tend to occur after age 50, although a sports-related injury or trauma sustained after a car accident can hasten and even increase the degenerative changes one would expect to see in the spine due to aging.

The most frequent site of painful degenerative changes is the lumbar spine, or lower back. This region of the spine experiences a great deal of wear and tear as it bears the lion’s share of body weight and also enables a person to bend, twist and lift heavy objects. Deterioration of discs and arthritic joints in this part of the spine can lead to nerve irritation and compression that causes pain and weakness in the lower back, as well as potentially radiating into the buttocks and down to the legs and feet.

The cervical spine, or neck area, is another frequent location for degenerative changes that can cause pain. Like the lumbar region, the upper part of the spine absorbs the impact of numerous bending and twisting motions over the course of a lifetime. This type of activity can lead to a breakdown of cervical discs and joints and eventually cause nerve irritation and compression. In addition to neck pain caused by arthritic spinal joints, a pinched nerve in this part of the spine can cause severe headaches and radiating pain, tingling and weakness in the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.

Degenerative spine conditions that can cause nerve compression and irritation

There are several age-related spine conditions that can lead to painful joints, compression of the spinal cord or a pinched nerve root. Here are a few of them:

  • Spinal osteoarthritis — if you’ve been diagnosed with spinal osteoarthritis, also known as facet joint syndrome, you’re likely to be experiencing degenerative changes to the cartilage that protects your facet joints. These hinge-like joints are located between the vertebrae, thus allowing the spine to bend. You can think of the facet joint cartilage as a protective coating that wears away over the course of time. This can lead to bone friction that irritates nerve endings in the joint, causing stiffness and a constant, dull ache. Spinal osteoarthritis can also lead to the development of bone spurs, which can ultimately put pressure on a spinal nerve root or the spinal cord.
  • Degenerative disc disease — the spongy discs that cushion the vertebrae of your spine are made up of fibrous cartilage encasing a gel-like material that has a high water content. As the years go by, the discs gradually lose some of their water content, which can cause them to flatten and provide less support for the vertebrae. Moreover, a dehydrated disc can lead to a weakening of its tough outer layer, causing conditions known as a bulging or herniated disc. When this happens, either the disc itself or the spinal components that are no longer receiving adequate support may press against a nerve and cause irritation and inflammation.
  • Spinal stenosis — when medical professionals use the term “spinal stenosis,” they’re referring to a narrowing of spaces in the spine. This can be caused by a number of different degenerative changes, including bone spurs and bulging or herniated discs. Generally speaking, smaller spaces in the spine increase the chances of nerve compression, which can lead to pain and other debilitating symptoms.

Treatment options for a degenerative spine

If you’re experiencing pain and discomfort as a result of a degenerative spine condition, your first step is to consult with your doctor. He or she is likely to ask you about your family and personal medical history and request details about your symptoms, including when they began and how often they occur. The doctor may also order diagnostic imaging tests to pinpoint the source of your symptoms. Although there are a few rare conditions that may warrant immediate surgery, most people experiencing symptoms related to degenerative changes in their spines will receive a conservative treatment plan that is tailored to relieve the symptoms of their specific condition.

Conservative treatments

A few conservative treatment options that a physician might recommend include the following:

  • Rest. Standing and sitting can place more pressure on painful areas of the spine. Lying on the floor with your face up and knees bent a few times each day may relieve pressure. Applying ice or heat packs to affected areas during rest time may help alleviate symptoms, too.
  • Exercise. Flexion exercises (bending forward) will stretch the lower back and lengthen the spine. Extension exercises (lying on the floor and arching the spine) will help separate the vertebrae in the lower back while maintaining the natural spinal curve. Symptoms from degenerative changes in the spine may also diminish with exercises such as yoga, swimming and walking. Make sure you check with your physician before beginning any new exercise program, however, because some movements may actually make your symptoms worse.
  • Medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medicines may reduce pain. Your primary care physician or a specialist can prescribe stronger medications or injections if needed.
  • Specialists. Chiropractors are trained in spinal manipulation, a technique that can help temporarily decompress areas of the spine that are pinching nerves. A physical therapist can treat spine pain with specialized exercises, massage and other techniques involving physical manipulation. Orthopedic doctors — who treat chronic pain, musculoskeletal injuries and arthritis — can specialize in the treatment of degenerative spine conditions. Another option is visiting a neurologist, which is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of nervous system disorders.

Alternative treatments

Some patients who are experiencing discomfort stemming from a degenerative spine condition have reported achieving pain relief through alternative remedies such as acupuncture and herbal therapy. If you decide to pursue alternative remedies, it will be important to discuss your plans with your doctor, as some treatments may be unsafe for your specific condition or interfere with the medications you’re taking.

Lifestyle changes

Shedding unhealthy habits can sometimes go a long way toward relieving the debilitating symptoms caused by degenerative changes in the spine. In fact, losing excess weight, improving your nutritional intake, giving up smoking and adopting a better posture may not only ease your existing symptoms but also help slow the progression of spinal deterioration going forward.

Minimally invasive spine surgery

If you’re experiencing painful degenerative changes in the spine and several weeks or months of nonsurgical treatments haven’t led to sufficient symptom relief, you might wish to consider surgery as a treatment option. If so, make sure you investigate the possibility of pursuing minimally invasive spine surgery at Laser Spine Institute. We’re the nation’s leader in minimally invasive spine surgery,^ and our surgeons perform a number of outpatient procedures that are designed to help patients with degenerative spine conditions achieve symptom relief and resume their normal way of life.

The surgeries we perform at Laser Spine Institute for degenerative spine conditions generally fall into two approaches: decompression and stabilization. Which specific procedures may be right for you will depend on your specific condition, which is typically identified by an MRI and a patient exam. Our minimally invasive procedures offer a safer and effective alternative to traditional open spine surgeries, including smaller incisions, less scarring and a lower risk of complication.^

If you’ve been diagnosed with a degenerative spine condition and you’re wondering if treatment at Laser Spine Institute is an option for you, we can provide you with a free MRI review* to help determine whether you may be a candidate for our outpatient procedures. We’ll also be happy to tell you more about the advantages^ of our minimally invasive surgery and discuss the patient-centered treatment you can expect at one of our facilities. Contact us today to get started.