What is Degenerative Spine Disease?
The term “degenerative spine” may sound alarming to you, but the truth is that almost everyone older than 50 has some form of degenerative spine disease. The spine naturally wears down as the body ages. Spinal discs gradually deteriorate, and the joints’ cartilage shows wear and tear.
Spinal degeneration begins with the breakdown of spinal cartilage, either in the discs or the spine’s facet joints. This is called degenerative disc disease if cartilaginous discs between the vertebrae weaken or become brittle. If cartilage on the surface of the facet joints erodes, this is called degenerative spinal arthritis, or spinal osteoarthritis. These conditions can lead to herniated discs, thinning discs, bone spurs, bulging discs, and/or spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal canal. These changes can make the neck and back stiff and achy, putting painful pressure on spinal nerves.
If you have been diagnosed with degenerative spine disease, your doctor will likely begin recommending options for treatment. Research the options available to you so you can play an active role in your treatment process. Typically, treatments will begin conservatively, though patients may need surgery if all conservative treatments are ineffective.
Conservative Degenerative Spine Treatments
If your physician has diagnosed you with any of the above, they may suggest conservative degenerative spine treatment options, including:
- Physical therapy. This approach consists of gentle stretching and muscle-building exercises that are aimed at helping patients increase their mobility, flexibility, strength, and endurance. When done properly — as instructed by an experienced physical therapist — stretching can often temporarily increase the nerve space in the spinal column, thereby alleviating some of the pressure placed on affected nerves. That can mean relief from pain, numbness, weakness, or other symptoms caused by nerve compression. Physical therapists can also teach patients about maintaining proper posture and using the correct lifting techniques.
- Steroid injections. These injections are commonly known as “epidural steroid injections” because they are delivered into the spine’s epidural space or the area between the spinal membrane and the vertebral wall. These corticosteroid injections temporarily mitigate pain by reducing inflammation around compressed nerves in the spine. Typically, patients combine injections with a numbing agent and a longer-lasting corticosteroid.
- Pain and anti-inflammatory medications. Physicians often advise their degenerative spine patients to use over-the-counter or prescription medications to help manage symptoms like pain. The specific products recommended may include muscle relaxants, narcotic pain medications, oral steroids, anti-inflammatory drugs, or acetaminophen. It’s best to check with a physician before beginning any new medicine to understand potential side effects and interactions with other drugs or supplements.
- Lifestyle changes. Having unhealthy habits can contribute to the progression of neck and back problems. Thus, physicians often ask their patients to make improvements to their lifestyles to help minimize damage. Changes might include quitting smoking to help protect disc proteins from breaking down, losing weight to remove some excess pressure from the spine, and performing a moderate exercise to enhance overall strength and flexibility.
Many patients also incorporate holistic approaches into their degenerative spine treatment plans. Although the medical community has not yet reached a consensus on the effectiveness of such methods, people with degenerative spine conditions may find that they help manage their symptoms. A few examples of alternative and complementary treatment options include:
- Therapeutic massage. Intended to relieve tension from the muscles of the neck and back, massage can stimulate blood vessels and thereby increase blood flow. It is also useful for relieving and preventing muscle spasms and potentially improving the flexibility of targeted areas.
- Acupuncture. This method involves placing tiny needles in the patient’s body. The aim is to stimulate “acupoints” along specific pathways that run throughout the body, potentially relieving the pain and other symptoms associated with a damaged spine.
- Chiropractic care. Chiropractors help bring the spine into proper alignment based on the belief that components of the spine being out of place can cause neck and back issues. They use various spinal manipulation techniques to help provide their patients with temporary relief from their symptoms.
Surgery with BEST Health System
Many people with degenerative spine issues find that conservative treatment sufficiently addresses their symptoms and allows them to carry on with work and other typical tasks. Spine surgery may become a viable option for patients who don’t gain enough benefits from conservative therapies. Traditional open neck and back surgeries happen in a hospital setting, and patients typically spend a few days at the facility to recover. These highly invasive procedures require large incisions, lengthy recovery time, and cause muscle disruption.
However, at BEST Health System, we believe in a minimally invasive approach to surgery. Our patients can return on the same day of their procedure. Additionally, patients can enjoy a much shorter recovery time due to the smaller incision. Contact BEST Health System today to learn more about minimally invasive surgery.