While there are many factors that can contribute to degenerative disc disease, the primary underlying cause is the natural aging process. The spinal discs absorb shock for the spinal column, helping the spine remain flexible yet strong enough to support the upper body and protect the spinal cord.
With age the discs lose water content and elasticity, which makes them less able to withstand the stresses they are placed under during everyday activity. Aging, combined with weight, genetics, posture and injury can all cause these drier, weaker discs to deteriorate, resulting in degenerative disc disease.
How age causes degeneration of discs
Spinal discs are composed of two main parts – a gel-like center called the nucleus pulposus, and a layered outer wall known as the annulus fibrosus. The onset of degenerative disc disease causes these two parts to break down in different ways:
- Nucleus pulposus. The gel-like center of the disc begins to lose water content over time, reducing the height of the disc. This allows adjacent vertebrae to shift and places stress on the delicate nerve structures that reside between the vertebrae, as well as place stress on the joints where the vertebrae meet and articulate.
- Annulus fibrosus. The fibers of a disc’s outer wall begin to lose elasticity over time, causing the wall to become weak and brittle. Eventually, the wall may begin to lose its shape and extend beyond its normal boundary, which is called a bulging disc. Tears may develop, allowing nucleus material to leak out — called a herniated disc.
Symptoms and treatment
Degenerative disc disease, and related conditions like bulging and herniated discs, are not necessarily painful. In fact, it is possible to have some degree of this condition for years without knowing it. Symptoms usually develop when displaced disc material or increased contact of vertebrae causes narrowing of the spinal canal or nerve root exits. Excessive pressure on the spinal nerves can result in symptoms like pain, tingling, numbness and muscle weakness, both locally and in the extremities.
While these symptoms can often be successfully treated with a course of conservative treatment options like rest, medication and exercise, surgery can become an option if these methods do not provide relief after weeks or months. If you are considering surgical options for degenerative disc disease, reach out to USA Spine Care. Our minimally invasive spine surgery is a safer and effective alternative to traditional procedures, offering less risk of complication and a shorter recovery time for our patients.^
Learn more about our procedures and find out if you are a potential candidate by contacting us today for a no-cost MRI review.*
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