Cushioning the vertebrae along the spinal column are spongy-like intervertebral discs that connect the spinal column and enable movement. Degenerative disc disease occurs from changes to the spinal discs from the aging process or traumatic injury to the back. With aging, these discs can lose fluid, making them less flexible. Additionally, tears to the disc wall and erosion of the disc center can lead to spinal damage.
Degenerative disc disease varies in severity and location, but it typically manifests in the lumbar (lower back) and cervical (neck) regions. Severity ranges from lower back or neck stiffness to disabling pain and inability to function. If you would like to learn more about degenerative disc disease and treatment options for the spinal condition, please visit the degenerative disc disease page on WebMD.
What Causes Spinal Disc Deterioration?
Spinal discs are soft and compressible, allowing the spine to flex, bend, twist, and function as shock absorbers. The wear and erosion that can occur with the discs include:
- Fluid loss: Discs become less flexible and thinner, which narrows the distance between the vertebrae.
- Cracks or tears: Inner portion of disc seeps out, creating a bulge that ruptures or fragments
Accidents to the back or spine can cause acute injury, disrupting the spine and eventually leading to a herniated disc. Additional risk factors for degenerative disc disease include smoking cigarettes, heavy physical work, age, and obesity.
As the natural disc cushions wear down and get thinner, the space between vertebrae decreases, causing instability. Bony growths (bone spurs or “osteophytes”) develop to compensate for the loss of disc matter. These growths place pressure on the spinal cord, causing pain and nerve damage.
Diseases associated with spinal disc erosion include spinal stenosis (narrowing of spinal canal), herniated discs (abnormal bulge or ruptured disk), and osteoarthritis (tissue and cartilage loss). Severe cases or situations involving multiple trauma sites could require surgery.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
The extent, range, and location of pain varies. Degenerative disc disease in the neck may cause neck and arm pain, and if it’s in the lower back, pain can radiate from the back to the buttock and leg. Pain can be accompanied by numbness or tingling in a leg or arm.
When any of these symptoms are present, an orthopedic spine specialist must be consulted. A physical exam will be conducted and the doctor will check:
- Range of motion
- Arm and leg strength
- Areas for tenderness, numbness or tingling
Imaging tests such as MRIs or x-rays will be immediately performed in the case of a recent injury or if an infection, tumor, or bone disease are suspected.
Treatment Options for Eroded Discs
When dealing with degenerative disc disease, conservative treatments are usually prescribed first. These treatment options can include physical therapy and steroid injections. Surgery is typically the last resort; however, minimally invasive procedures can effectively treat a condition quickly with less recovery time.
If surgery is recommended, the damaged disc could either be removed or replaced through an artificial disc replacement procedure. If a disc is removed, the area can then be joined (spinal fusion) to protect the spinal cord.
What to Expect During Recovery
Conservative treatment does not require a recovery time, but patients are requested to use common sense when receiving this type of medical care. It’s important to protect the back by not straining it and allowing it time to heal.
Recovery from surgery depends upon the type of procedure performed. Each case is different and depends upon not just the type and severity of the disorder, but a patient’s age, physical condition, and medical history. Minimally invasive spinal surgery techniques are often performed on an out-patient basis where the patient can have the surgery then return home on the same day. Recovery would only take several weeks with physical therapy. More invasive surgeries require a longer recovery phase which could last months following a short hospital stay. In these cases, physical therapy is a critical success factor for a complete recovery and return to an active lifestyle.
If you are suffering from spine trauma or chronic back pain, contact the Los Angeles Spine Group today to make an appointment at our state of the art facilities. Call 310.574.0400 or book an appointment online today.
Next, learn about herniated discs.