What Is Degenerative Disease in the Neck? - Symptoms & Causes

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson, we'll learn about degenerative disease and focus on types of this disease that affect the neck. We'll also explore symptoms and causes of some examples of degenerative disease of the neck.

What Is Degenerative Disease?

Picture a toddler. His skin is soft, his limbs are flexible, and he can probably run around all day. Now imagine his grandmother--she may be sore, be stiff, and have far less energy than her young grandson. From this vantage point, aging might not look so great. But it happens to everyone, and people's bodies slowly wear out over time, much like the parts of a car.

For some people, however, the natural progression of aging is sped up and their bodies begin to wear out earlier. This is known as degenerative disease, during which cells begin to deteriorate at a faster rate than normal, affecting various tissues throughout the body. Today, we will focus on degenerative diseases that specifically affect the neck. Before we look at some examples, let's explore the anatomy of the neck.

Neck Anatomy

Most people can point out the neck by what it looks like on the outside, but what's inside the neck? The neck is the upper portion of the spine, which is called the cervical spine.

Cervical spine
cervical spine

The spine is composed of individual vertebrae, or segmented bones, that are connected with little circles of tissue called discs. The discs cushion the vertebrae and prevent them from rubbing together. Facet joints allow the spine to bend, such as when we nod yes or no, and ligaments are tissue that connect the bones together and stabilize the spine.

Spinal disc anatomy
spinal disc

Part of the job of the spine is to give structure to the body, and the other part of its job is to protect the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a collection of nerves that connects the brain to the body. Now that we know a bit about the parts of the neck, let's discuss how degenerative disease can affect the neck.

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

Cervical degenerative disc disease occurs when the discs in between the vertebrae of the cervical spine start to wear down. Discs are composed of a squishy center called the nucleus and a thick outer layer called the annulus. Think of it like a candy with a gooey center. Sometimes, the squishy center wears down over time. This results in less cushioning between the vertebrae, which can cause a stiff neck and low-level chronic pain. Other times, the annulus actually cracks, causing that soft center to squish out and irritate the nerves in the spinal cord. This is referred to as a herniated disc.

Herniated disc
herniated disc

Since the spinal cord is injured, the symptoms include numbness, weakness, and pain in the lower body. The exact location of the pain depends on where the spinal cord is injured, since the nerves departing from each vertebrae go to different places in the body.

Cervical Spinal Stenosis

Cervical spinal stenosis is another degenerative disease of the neck. With this disease, the opening for the spinal cord in the vertebrae narrows. This can also result in pinched nerves, similar to the irritation that occurs with a herniated disc. However, the symptoms are more intense than what occurs with a herniated disc and can involve loss of muscle in the legs, random reflexes such as kicking the leg over and over, and difficulty walking.

Spinal stenosis
spinal stenosis

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