Spinal Disc Degeneration: the Degenerative Process and Consequence

November 28, 2011

We all know that our body and mind deteriorate as we age. As we get older, we notice that our body is not as strong and our mind is no as sharp as they used to be. The spinal discs, like our body and mind, also degenerate as we get older. And the consequence of the disc degeneration? degenerative disc disease.

The degenerative process

As we discussed in our previous blog posts, a spinal dsc consists of a tough outer layer (annulus) and soft, jelly-like inner content (nucleus pulposus). The tough outer layer and the soft inner content of a disc are made up of various types of proteins and a large amount of water. In fact, a healthy disc consists of about 80% water. Unfortunately, as we age, the discs gradually lose their water, and their proteins also undergo some undesirable changes.

Degenerative disc disease

As the discs continue to lose water and experience protein content changes, they become thinner and stiffer. And the disc space (the distance between 2 neighboring vertebrae) becomes smaller, which is actually why we become shorter as we get older. And as the discs dry out, they lose flexibility, which can cause the annulus, the tough outer layer of a disc, to tear or crack. If this happens, the inner jelly-like nucleus can seep through the tear or crack, causing the disc to bulge or rupture.

All these changes can eventually lead to degenerative disc disease and other spinal conditions. The following are the most common types of degenerative disc disease.

  • Disc herniation: Disc herniation is the most common type of aging-related degenerative spinal condition. Disc herniation happens when the inner soft material is pushed into the outer layer, causing the disc to bulge or break.
  • Bone spurs (osteophytes): As the discs lose flexibility and height, the vertebrae that the discs are supposed to support start to rub against each other. After a while, the cartilage, the slippery tissue that covers the end of vertebrae and joints, start to break down. Bone spurs thus start to grow as the body tries to repair the damaged areas.
  • Osteoarthritis: As the cartilage gradually wears away, the vertebrae continue to rub against each other, which can irritate the cartilage and cause inflammation, swelling, and pain.
  • Spinal stenosis: Disc herniation, along with bone spurs and other conditions, can make the spinal canal narrower, causing spinal stenosis, narrowing of the spinal canal.

And all these types of degenerative disease can cause back and/or neck pain, as well as other annoying symptoms.

Getting old is unpleasant, right? But the good news is that it’s possible for us to slow down the aging process and the disc degenerative process, although we cannot completely stop them. In our future blog posts, we’ll teach you how to slow down the aging-related degenerative process.

Meanwhile, if you need more information about disc degeneration and degenerative disc disease, please visit our "What is Degenerative Disc Disease" Page.

To help our patients understand the cause, symptoms and how to deal with disc degeneration and generative disc disease, at Atlantic Spinal Care, we have developed a lot of patient educational materials and free pain diagnostic tools. You are welcome to use them. If you still have questions regarding disc degeneration or other painful spinal conditions, feel free to contact us.