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What are degenerative spine conditions?
Degenerative spine conditions are the result of the loss of normal structure and function of the spine, typically due to age. The spine is made up of a complex series of muscles, vertebrae, ligaments and discs — components that naturally deteriorate over time. The discs are particularly important because they are designed to act as shock absorbers for the spine. In addition to allowing for spinal flexibility, the discs prevent the bony vertebrae from grinding against one another.
Consequently, when the spinal discs deteriorate, they become less effective. Because the spine is a narrow column filled with sensitive nerve tissue, any change in the structural integrity or placement of the discs can potentially impinge upon adjacent spinal nerves, which is often the underlying cause of painful degenerative spine symptoms.
Types & symptoms of degenerative spine disease
Spinal degeneration is entirely unavoidable. As you age, the anatomical components that support your neck and back will naturally wear down as a result of years of use. We become less flexible as we age and more prone to neck and back pain — this is normal. However, when spinal deterioration advances to the point that symptoms interfere with regular activity, treatment may be warranted.
11 Degenerative spine conditions that can prove to be problematic
- Spinal osteoarthritis: Also referred to as degenerative spinal arthritis, this condition involves the breakdown of cartilage located on the spinal facet joints. When osteoarthritis occurs, cartilage wears away, allowing bone-on-bone contact to occur within the joint. This can cause inflammation, the formation of bone spurs and nerve irritation.
- Bone spurs: Bone spurs are smooth protrusions of excess bone that frequently accompany arthritic deterioration. While these growths of bone are asymptomatic in and of themselves, the excess material can become problematic if it comes in contact with a nearby nerve. Bone spurs also often form in the aftermath of an injury.
- Degenerative disc disease: This condition occurs due to the breakdown of the spinal discs. When we grow older, the discs dehydrate and the proteins that keep them healthy break down. As the discs deteriorate, they become less effective at supporting the vertebrae. This can cause the vertebrae to become slightly displaced and put pressure on the nerve roots that travel in between the vertebrae, or on the spinal cord itself.
- Bulging discs: A bulging disc refers to a spinal disc that has swelled beyond its normal parameters between adjacent vertebral bodies. The enlarged disc remains structurally intact but due to increased pressure or age-related degeneration, has expanded into the spinal column. A bulging disc is not inherently symptomatic, but when the disc wall comes in contact with the spinal cord or any nearby nerve root, painful symptoms can develop.
- Herniated discs: A herniated disc refers to a spinal disc that has ruptured, allowing the inner gel-like disc material to seep into the spinal canal through a tear in the disc wall. This condition can be painful if the nerves in the disc wall become irritated as a result of the rupture, or if the extruded disc material irritates the spinal nerves. Herniated discs might develop as a result of an injury, but can also be caused by disc weakening that comes with age.
- Spondylolisthesis: Spondylolisthesis is a condition indicated by the presence of vertebral misalignment. In an otherwise healthy spine, the spinal column has a natural “S”-curve that evenly distributes weight along its length. With spondylolisthesis, one of the vertebrae in the spinal column slides out of its normal position. This condition is described in degrees of severity, with Grade 1 spondylolisthesis representing 0 to 25 percent slippage and Grade 4 spondylolisthesis indicating 75 to 100 percent vertebral slippage.
- Degenerative scoliosis: While most people equate scoliosis with adolescence, degenerative scoliosis is a spine condition that can develop later in life. When scoliosis occurs, it causes a side-to-side curvature of the spine, which can result in symptoms including a hunched posture or a change in gait.
- Spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis describes the narrowing of the spinal canal. This isn’t necessarily problematic by itself, but when the canal space becomes constricted, the spinal cord and other nerve structures can be irritated. Common causes of spinal stenosis include the presence of herniated disc material, bone spurs and other tissue.
- Foraminal stenosis: Foraminal stenosis describes the narrowing of the passageways through which nerve roots enter and exit the spinal canal. Like spinal stenosis, this condition isn’t symptomatic by itself, but if the space becomes so narrowed that the nerves are irritated, a variety of symptoms may develop including pain, muscle weakness and numbness. Often, this condition causes discomfort to travel the length of the affected nerve, potentially causing pain to develop in areas seemingly unrelated to the spine.
- Pinched nerves: A pinched spinal nerve is a common condition that many people will experience on occasion as they grow older. When the symptoms of a pinched nerve don’t go away on their own over several days, they could be the byproduct of one of the aforementioned degenerative spine conditions. Alleviating the symptoms is contingent on identifying and addressing the cause of the nerve constriction.
- Sciatica: Sciatica is a term that is frequently used as a catchall to describe the symptoms that arise from the inflammation and irritation of the sciatic nerve. This nerve originates at the base of the spinal cord and extends downward through the lower body before ending in the feet. Most commonly, sciatica is associated with chronic lower back and leg pain.
How are degenerative spine conditions treated?
Treatment for degenerative spine conditions depends on the type and severity of the condition. Following a degenerative spine diagnosis, most issues can often be successfully treated with a nonsurgical approach such as conservative rehabilitation routines, which might include physical therapy, hot and cold compresses or over-the-counter pain medication. If the symptoms worsen, your doctor may prescribe stronger medication or anti-inflammatory steroid injections. Some patients also find relief in the form of alternative therapies such as restorative yoga, acupuncture and chiropractic manipulation.
Conservative and nonsurgical degenerative spine treatment options do not work for every patient, but the surgeons at USA Spine Care may be able to help those patients who are unable to find nonsurgical relief. We offer outpatient procedures using state-of-the-art technology for those who qualify as a candidate for our minimally invasive spine surgery.
Our team of medical experts has helped more than 75,000 people from around the world find relief from neck and back pain since 2005, with the added benefit of smaller incisions compared to traditional open spine surgery. Contact us today to talk about your degenerative spine diagnosis and to receive a free MRI review.*
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