Degenerative Spine Conditions and Aging – What You Need to Know

Degenerative spine conditions, such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis and degenerative disc disease, can cause a loss of function and stability in any part of the neck or back, including the bones, cartilage, ligaments and discs. Most often, these degenerative changes occur slowly over time as a result of age-related wear and tear, which for the most part cannot be prevented or reversed. Among an aging population, degenerative spine conditions are becoming increasingly widespread, and many people are interested in learning about treatment options.

Spinal degeneration is probably even more common than you might think, especially when you consider that it is possible for a person to have a degenerative spine condition without even knowing it. Symptoms do not always develop, but when they do occur, the most common complaint by far is neck or back pain.

Sometimes, degenerative spine conditions can lead to the presence of excess tissue in the spinal canal, such as a bone spur, bulging or herniated disc or inflamed ligament, which causes the spinal canal to become narrower (a condition known as spinal stenosis). Because the space within the spinal canal is naturally limited, this can “pinch” or create painful pressure on the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root. When nerve tissue is compressed in this way, symptoms like pain, tingling, numbness and weakness may travel from the spine through an arm or leg.

When to see a physician about a suspected degenerative spine condition

Even though many people who are diagnosed with degenerative spine conditions do not require surgery, it’s still important to see a physician who can provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend an appropriate treatment plan. Because the underlying causes of degenerative spine conditions can vary widely — degeneration can affect the spinal bones, joints, ligaments, muscles and discs, which in turn can potentially affect the spinal cord and spinal nerve roots — there is no standard treatment that works well for everyone.

Some red flags that warrant prompt medical attention for a degenerative spine condition include neck or back pain that lasts for several weeks or is accompanied by:

  • Incontinence or “saddle” anesthesia, which are signs of cauda equina syndrome, a rare but serious neurological condition that is sometimes life-threatening
  • Weakness, numbness or pins-and-needles sensations in the arms or legs, which may indicate myelopathy
  • Radiating discomfort that spreads into a shoulder, arm, hand, leg or foot, which is a possible symptom of radiculopathy
  • Fever
  • More intense pain during the night
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Breathing or swallowing difficulties
  • A fall, injury or other trauma

After reviewing these symptoms and performing a physical examination, a physician may order one or more imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans and MRIs, as appropriate. X-rays and CT scans can show the overall curvature and alignment of the spinal column, as well as certain spinal abnormalities, such as bone spurs, vertebral fractures and narrowing. MRIs can provide detailed images of soft tissues, nerve roots and the spinal cord, allowing a physician to pinpoint a source of nerve compression caused by a degenerative spine condition.

Commonly prescribed treatments for degenerative spine conditions

It’s a given that almost everyone has some degree of spinal degeneration by age 40. Even so, depending on the underlying cause, most people who are diagnosed with degenerative spine conditions do very well with an individualized course of nonsurgical treatments, such as:

  • Activity modification
  • Physical therapy
  • Weight loss
  • Neck or back braces
  • Pain relievers
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Corticosteroid injections

Usually, surgery is recommended only for a small minority of patients who experience severe pain or impaired mobility that is not helped by nonsurgical treatments.

Is surgery the answer?

Those who are considering surgery as a last resort treatment for a degenerative spine condition must understand that surgery never comes with any guarantees. For this reason, it’s always best to explore all appropriate treatment options and choose the least invasive approach that will potentially be effective. For instance, Laser Spine Institute offers minimally invasive spine surgery that is an alternative to traditional open back procedures. Our experienced surgeons successfully perform thousands of minimally invasive spine surgeries each year, setting us apart as the leader our field.^

If you’re considering surgery to address a painful degenerative spine condition and would like to know more about Laser Spine Institute’s minimally invasive approach, contact us today. We can provide you with an MRI review at no cost* to determine if you may be a candidate for one of our procedures.