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What Is Degenerative Spine Disease?

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson we'll go over degenerative spine disease and its general symptoms. Then, we'll get into the three main types of degenerative spine disease: herniated discs, spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease.

Spine Anatomy

Picture your favorite book. It probably has seen some water damage, maybe from the pool or the edge of your bathtub. It might have some crumbs from evening snacks in its corners. It most likely has gotten banged up a bit from being inside your bag. When you first got it, it was new, with a crisp spine that was hard to even open. As time went on, the spine wore out and pages started to fall apart. Although a little unsettling, this is analogous to what happens to our own spines over time.

Our spine supports our body like the spine of a book holds the pages together
spine

The spine is made up of bones called vertebrae, and connected by spongy protein and cartilage called, discs. There are 23 discs in the human spine allowing it to bend with our movement, as opposed to being rigid. The vertebrae house the spinal cord, which carries messages between your brain and your body.

Anatomy of the spinal cord and discs
spinal disc

What Is Degenerative Spine Disease?

To understand degenerative spine disease, picture our lifespan. Young children easily flip and turn on the playground, bending their spine into contorted backbends, but as we age our spine becomes less flexible. For some people this is due to degenerative spine disease. This is when either the discs, or vertebrae in the spine, break down over time. Although normally caused by the natural process of aging; tumors, infections, or arthritis can also cause degenerative spine disease. There are three main types of degenerative spine disease: herniated discs, spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease. Before we examine these types, let's look at the general symptoms of degenerative spine disease.

General Symptoms

Since the spine is a major part of the skeletal system, symptoms of degenerative spine disease include decreased mobility and/or back pain. The pain can be chronic, or be sharp and acute caused by activity.

Since the spinal cord carries messages between the body and brain, the patient may also have symptoms below the back. This depends on where the degeneration occurs within the spine. Weakness, loss of sensation, numbness, problems with vision, bladder control and sexual dysfunction can all arise from spinal degeneration. These are the general symptoms, but each type of spinal degenerative disease have specific symptoms as well. Let's look at each one in more detail.

Herniated Discs

The inside of spinal discs, called the nucleus, are made of a squishy jelly that cushion the space between the individual vertebrae. The outside of the discs, called the annulus, are hardened to prevent the soft cushioning from leaking out. When a disc becomes herniated this is exactly what happens, and the squishy center oozes out through cracks in the hardened outside.

Herniated disc structure
herniated disc

The result is a loss of cushioning in between the vertebrae, which can aggravate the nerves in the spine causing weakness or tingling in the arms and legs. Sometimes people refer to this condtion as a pinched nerve.

Herniated disc in the lumbar spine
herniated disc

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