Time is the enemy of the discs in your spine, and the wear and tear on them intensifies as you age. A traumatic incident, like an auto accident or a fall, a genetic predisposition to musculoskeletal problems, and certain lifestyle practices can also exacerbate the damage.
The pain and discomfort that disc degeneration prompts can be mild and nagging or severe and life-limiting.
Dr. Benjamin Cohen’s vast experience treating this and many other spine conditions makes him uniquely suited to deliver the most advanced care. Additionally, his ability to listen to your questions and concerns distinguishes him from his peers in the best way.
The lowdown on discs
It’s important to learn some basic facts about your discs if you’re to understand the evolution of disc degeneration, including their anatomical features and the vital jobs they perform.
There are two components to each of your 23 discs — a sturdy outer section, the annulus fibrosus, and the more pliable, soft inner portion it surrounds, known as the nucleus pulposus. The disc’s outer portion is made of collagen, while the inside contains a gel-like substance.
Because of their unique makeup, your discs simultaneously:
- Keep your spinal vertebrae stable and in place
- Allow for some movement of your spine
- Act as shock absorbers, protecting your vertebrae from impact
- Protect the nerves that go down the center of your spine and discs
When pain erupts due to disc degeneration, you might feel it within the disc itself or in a nerve when your disc compresses it.
How disc degeneration develops
When you’re young, your discs are approximately 80% water, but as time passes, they become dehydrated. This drying out makes your disc thinner, and its ability to serve as part of your spine’s shock absorbing system is compromised.
Another major cause of disc degeneration is wear and tear and, less often, damage from injuries that harm the tough outer portion of your discs. Since a disc’s blood supply isn’t plentiful, it doesn’t typically heal well from this damage.
This sequence of events decreases spine stability and puts you at higher risk for disc herniation, which is when the nucleus breaks through a tear or opening in the annulus. Symptoms include arm or leg weakness, numbness, and pain.
The hard-to-ignore symptoms of the instability and nerve compression related to disc degeneration include:
- Neck pain
- Lower back pain
- Muscle spasms
- Imminent feeling that your spine will no longer be able to support you
Disc degeneration can also cause a pinched nerve (radiculopathy), where pain and tingling run the length of your arms or legs. You might also lose feeling and become numb in your arm or leg.
It’s important to seek treatment for degenerative disc disease because if it’s left untreated, the door is open to other painful conditions, like spinal stenosis.
How is disc degeneration treated?
If you’re diagnosed with disc degeneration, Dr. Cohen learns all he can about your history of pain and examines you thoroughly. Initially, he recommends conservative therapies, starting with:
- Pain medication
- Steroid injections
- Electrical stimulation, or “e-stim,” a type of therapy that delivers mild electrical pulses through your skin to reduce muscle and nerve pain
- Physical therapy
Dr. Cohen offers surgical options if these treatments don’t relieve your pain.
He may perform an artificial disc replacement procedure during which he swaps your damaged disc with an artificial one. This particular surgery preserves your spinal movement ability.
Another surgical option is disc removal (discectomy) and spinal fusion. In this operation, Dr. Cohen removes your damaged disc and places a bone graft between your vertebrae. This graft may consist of actual bone or he might employ something called a fusion cage, which is filled with biochemicals that induce bone growth.
The bone graft stimulates the vertebrae on either side of where the disc, eventually forming a single bone. Dr. Cohen uses metal plates or screws to connect the bones so that over time, they fuse together.
Dr. Cohen performs these procedures using minimally invasive surgical techniques whenever possible, which require only one or two small incisions. Through those he places thin tubes that hold specially designed surgical implements and either a very small microscope or endoscope that enables him to view your surgical site. Each allows him to see a well-lit, magnified image of your spinal tissue.
Studies show that patients heal faster with minimally invasive surgery as opposed to traditional open methods, and there’s less pain, bleeding, and scarring. A much lower percentage of your muscle is affected, and you’re less likely to acquire an infection post-surgery.
Call our office to schedule an in-office or telemedicine visit if you suspect you’re suffering with disc degeneration and learn about your options, or book an appointment online.