The spine contains numerous bones called vertebrae as well as a series of discs, which are like tiny sponges that sit in between the bones. The purpose of spinal discs is to buffer the stress and friction of movement so the vertebrae do not wear down prematurely. Discs provide the spine with flexibility as well. Over time, due to the very mechanics of the spine, discs may wear down. This is referred to as degenerative disc disease.
The degeneration of spinal discs may occur in several different ways. The most common change that we see in spinal discs is that they dry out. Without proper moisture, the discs start to flatten out. As they do, they become less functional. Flat discs are not exceptionally good at providing shock-absorption. They also lessen the space between vertebrae, posing a risk of painful friction.
Sometimes, the outer layer of disc tissue cracks. This allows soft inner material to seep out. Although soft, this material can irritate nearby nerve roots, leading to inflammation and pain. Fortunately, these are treatable problems. If back pain develops and recurs or persists, it is beneficial to schedule a thorough medical examination, possibly with a spinal specialist.
Degeneration is a Process
Understanding the structure of the spine and the spinal discs themselves helps us gain clarity regarding the process of degeneration. At first, the drying disc may give no signs of wear. Even as the disc bulges, tears, or cracks, some people experience little to no pain. In more severe cases, a disc may break apart into small pieces. But there’s more that can happen.
When the body experiences changes in bony and cartilaginous tissue, it compensates. Without the necessary padding between two vertebrae, the body makes osteophytes. We call these growths bone spurs, projections that form on the ridge of bones. When bone spurs develop on the spine, they may press against adjacent nerves or the spinal cord itself. This may be when painful symptoms become difficult to ignore.
Diagnosing and Treating Degenerative Disc Disease
The wide variation in symptoms is one of the challenging aspects of degenerative disc disease. Some people have no pain, while others’ pain is debilitating. Discomfort may occur right at the point of origin, such as the low back, or it may radiate or occur in another part of the body. For example, degeneration in the lumbar spine may send pain radiating down the buttocks or legs. The body’s tendency to compensate may also lead to muscle spasms.
To diagnose spinal disc degeneration, a doctor will look at factors such as muscular symptoms (weakness or atrophy), reflexes to observe nerve function, and pain triggers, which may be reported or observed through certain motions. Diagnostic imaging may also be ordered to comfort the type and severity of the problem.
Treatment for spinal disc degeneration is typically nonsurgical. Pain may be improved through physical therapy, prescription medication, activity modifications, and rest. If it is not, then a doctor will consider surgery. To address disc degeneration, spinal decompression and/or fusion surgery may be considered. Each eases pressure on the affected nerve or nerves, improving both comfort and mobility.