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Spinal Aging or the Degenerative Cascade

Degenerative disc disease can sound quite frightening to someone hearing about it for the first time. Let us alleviate your fears by telling you that this really isn’t a disease, but a natural process that we all go through. A disk may be compared to the tire of your car. If the tire is fully inflated and there are no flaws, then a smooth ride will occur. But if the tire is stressed when under inflated and/or runs at a high-speed in a high-temperature environment then catastrophic failure can occur. Both discs and tires can become very painful and/or problematic with prolonged use or abuse.

As we age, we all get older, and as we get older our bodies begin to deteriorate. This starts very early in our life and continues throughout our lives. As our spine ages, we get disc degeneration and osteoarthritis/spondylosis. As a result of this, our spines begin to shorten.

This is why our parents or grandparents look like they are getting shorter as they age; they actually are. As the spine shortens the holes where the nerves and the spinal cord are, also get smaller.

Occasionally the nerves and/or spinal cord becomes entrapped and compressed by either bulging/herniated discs or osteoarthritis/spondylosis, which may become spinal stenosis and may pinch nerves resulting in sciatica/radiculopathy and/or myelopathy.

Disc Degeneration: Degenerative Cascade Simplified

There are 3 stages of the degenerative cascade when considering disc degeneration.

The first stage consists of an initial injury that causes instability in the area surrounding the disc causing the patient acute pain.

The second stage may last between 20 and 30 years. During this stage, the patient will have infrequent flare-ups of back pain in the area that will cause pain ranging from days to months at a time.

The third stage. During this final stage, the body heals itself and stabilizes the damaged area leading to less frequent episodes of back pain. Degenerative disc disease is most commonly seen in patients aged 30 – 50. This is when most people will injure a disc and begin the degenerative cascade process. It is also the reason it is uncommon to find disc pain in patients 60 years or older.

Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease Include localized pain in the area of disc degeneration, increased pain when sitting, and pain brought on by performing certain activities that involve bending, lifting, or twisting. If disc degeneration has caused nerve compression or other symptoms related to sciatica, a pinched nerve in the neck may also be present.

To learn more about Dr. Cotler or to schedule an appointment, please call us on (713) 523-8884

Howard B. Cotler, MD, FACS, FAAOS is board certified and recertified in Orthopedic Surgery. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery and the American College of Surgeons.

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