The discs that sit between the bones of the spine (the vertebrae) are meant to hold height and space throughout time. When a disc loses that height and space, it may be referred to as a collapsed disc. Collapse involves some extent of breakdown in the outer wall of the disc. This could be due to acute trauma or, more likely, to gradual degradation that occurs over many years. A collapsed disc is a problem that needs to be diagnosed and treated properly. Otherwise, there is a strong potential for secondary issues to develop.
Overview of Collapsed Spinal Discs
Discs in the uppermost (cervical) and lowermost (lumbar) segments of the spine are most likely to experience collapse. This is because it is in these areas that most of the stress of weight and physical movement occurs. Spinal discs are soft and gelatinous at their core. Around the soft center, the disc is more rigid and fibrous. Over time, daily stress on the spine can cause the outer shell to wear down somewhat, decreasing the height of the disc. This loss does not involve bulging or herniation but it can compress nearby nerve roots.
The progression of disc collapse may go on for years without causing any symptoms at all. A change in mobility, flexibility, or sensation may only result when the disc space has decreased enough to press down on nerves. Symptoms to note include:
- Muscle weakness
Symptoms of nerve compression don’t necessarily occur in the direct area of the spine. Usually, back pain or neck pain relates more to the muscle contractions that occur when the spine is relatively unstable with compression. Where sensations often occur is in a limb where the compressed nerve travels. For example, a compressed cervical nerve may lead to pain, weakness, or other symptoms in a hand or fingers or arm.
Diagnosing and Treating Collapsed Discs
It is possible to get a clearer picture of spinal health by consulting with a back specialist. Remember, a spinal surgeon is not one who will rush into a recommendation for surgery. Much of the time, medical protocols include nonsurgical treatments first as a way to reduce symptoms and improve spinal stabilization.
To diagnose a collapsed spinal disc, Dr. Albert conducts a thorough consultation and discussion of symptoms. This is followed by an examination and observation of certain movements. Finally, imaging such as x-rays or MRI may be ordered to adequately visualize the intricate structures of the spine. Surgery to stabilize the affected spinal segment may be recommended based on the findings of imaging and the physical exam or if nonsurgical modalities do not achieve the desired degree of improvement.