The term “collapsed disc” is used to describe a number of spinal conditions that cause the intervertebral discs to lose height. When these conditions, which include herniated discs, bulging discs and degenerative disc disease, lead to thinner, misshapen discs, other elements of the spine may move from their normal position. When this occurs, the spinal cord or a spinal nerve can become compressed, and patients may experience symptoms of pain, numbness, muscle weakness, tingling, and muscle spasms.
How can aging cause a disc to collapse?
Collapsed discs and aging can go hand-in-hand, due to the degenerative changes that occur as we grow older. Years of wear and tear (even from everyday activities like sitting, standing, and walking) can cause the elements of the spine to break down. Intervertebral discs are natural shock absorbers between the boney vertebrae. Discs have two main components, an outer fibro-elastic containment rim and an inner soft gelatinous core. When axial loading pressure occurs along the spinal column, the central gelatinous core of the disc squeezes outward against the fibro-elastic containment rim of the disc. The elastic recoil of the containment wall pushes the gelatinous core back into position, reestablishing the height and shape of the disc. As a person ages, natural daily activity causes repeated loading of the disc. Tiny tears fibers in the fibro-elastic outer containment wall of the disc occur. This causes some loss of the disc’s outer containment wall elasticity or recoil. The outer disc containment wall can no longer push the central core material back into shape as effectively. The outer containment wall sags or bulges. These changes can begin to occur as early as our mid-30s and can lead to the development of a number of spinal conditions, including collapsed discs.
Several factors can exacerbate the effects that aging can have on intervertebral discs, including the following:
- Weight – Carrying extra weight applies undue pressure to the spine. The neck and back have to work extra hard to support excess body weight.
- Smoking – Smoking tobacco products can be very harmful to the body because it decreases oxygen levels in the blood. This can cause the intervertebral discs to lose out on necessary nutrients.
- Physical activity – Strenuous occupations that require constant lifting, twisting, bending, or sitting can apply extra stress to the spine. High-impact sports such as hockey and football can also apply extra wear and tear to the spine.
How is a collapsed disc treated?
Since aging is a key contributing factor in disc collapse, everyone experiences some loss of disc height. Only when neural tissue becomes entrapped does symptoms develop. When symptoms arise, the extent and position of neural entrapment determines the severity and location of symptoms. Disc collapse without neural entrapment gives no symptoms and requires no treatment. Excluding trauma, when symptoms begin, they usually appear gradually. Conservative therapies, such as pain medications and physical therapy, are common treatments. Patients failing conservative treatments may require surgery. Laser Spine Institute’s outpatient procedures utilize state-of-the-art endoscopic technology requiring less anesthesia, while presenting fewer risks, and yielding an expedited recovery time when compared to traditional open back surgery. Contact Laser Spine Institute for more information.