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The Ultimate Back Pain Relief Tips Blog

What Is A Degenerated Disc?

Posted by Dr. Jeff Winternheimer D.C. on Mon, Nov 12, 2012 @ 01:07 PM

degenerated disc illinoisBy the age of 50, 85 percent of the population begins to show evidence of disc degeneration; it’s the result of gravity, wear and tear, and time. Unfortunately, as you age the discs can wear down and can lead to back pain. This is a natural part of growing older as your body deals with years of strain, overuse, and maybe even misuse. However, Degenerated Discs can occur in people as young as 20 years old. This is mostly the result of trauma to the spine.

At the Illinois Back Institute we treat many active and retired NFL players. They all suffer from severe Disc Degeneration. This is a direct result of all the traumas suffered during their playing days. The main reason for Degenerated Discs is wear and tear.

To understand exactly what a Degenerated Disc is you need to know more about your spine.

The disc serves 3 primary functions:

The disc consists of two distinct regions and can be compared to a jelly donut. The tough outer layer, called annulus fibrosis, maintains the shape of the disc. The soft inner region, called the nucleus pulposus, is the jelly like center that enables the disc to function as a shock absorber.  

  1. They act as shock absorbers to the spine.
  2. They provide mobility to the spine allowing it to bend and twist.
  3. They separate the vertebrae allowing nerve roots to branch off from the spinal cord.

How does a disc degenerate?

There are several ways the discs can deteriorate and possibly cause back pain. These include:

  • Tears can appear in the outer layer over time. These tears can be associated with like body weight, heavy lifting, or poor posture (Everyday activities)
  • Gravity over time causes the jelly inside the disc to dry out.  So the aging process causes the discs to degenerate diminishing their water content & therefore reducing their ability to properly absorb the impact associated with spinal movement
  • Injuries that can rip the disc apart or cause a major tear. Improper lifting, sports, or severe strain on the spine can cause these injuries

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What is the process of Degenerated Disc disease?

  • A Degenerated Disc generally begins with small tears in the disc wall. These tears can heal over time with scar tissue but it is not as strong as the disc wall. If the back is repeatedly injured, the process of tearing and scarring may continue causing the disc wall to weaken and ultimately become inflamed. The inflammation will cause the “chronic pain”!
  • Over time, the center of the disc becomes damaged making it lose some of its water content, which is needed to keep the disc functioning as a shock absorber for the spine.
  • The nucleus then collapses, as it is unable to act as a cushion. The improper alignment causes the facet joints to twist into an unnatural position.
  • When the disc breaks down it will start to stress the facet joints, these are the areas where the vertebral bones touch. When the facet joints are stressed, over time they also will break down. This is known as arthritis of the spine.
  • The awkward positioning of the vertebrae may also create bone spurs. Spinal Stenosis can occur if these bone spurs grow into the spinal canal and pinch the spinal cord and nerves. 

Who is at risk for Degenerated Disc disease?

  • Genetic predisposition
  • History of heavy work
  • Poor body mechanics
  • Traumatic injury
  • Being overweight
  • Smoking

Most everyone will experience some degree of disc degeneration, but some people are born with a susceptibility to back pain.  

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