Cartilage is a firm, flexible connective tissue found in many areas of the body, primarily around bones and joints. In the spine, it helps joints and discs move without friction. Over time, cartilage can wear down, a process that’s sometimes hastened by an injury or progressive condition such as arthritis that affects tissues around bones and joints. When this happens, bones, joints, and discs of the spine are more susceptible to damage since there’s less cushioning from cartilage. Here’s what Beverly Hills spine surgeons claim you need to know about spinal cartilage degeneration.
As is the case with disc degeneration, cartilage degeneration can occur as a result of a sudden trauma such as a hard fall. It can also occur slowly over time. The onset of spinal cartilage degeneration is sometimes hastened by underlying issues like spinal osteoarthritis or issues with the discs and joints of the spine. In some cases, the reverse is true and worn or damaged cartilage is what contributes to degenerative disc disease and disc herniation. It may also play a role in the severity of spinal stenosis, an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms associated with spinal cartilage degeneration can vary based on which part of the spine is affected. Localized pain may be felt in the lower back or neck if only the area where cartilage is worn is affected. If the damaged tissue has caused other issues within the spine, such as a herniated or slipped disc, nearby nerves may become “pinched” or compressed. If this happens, symptoms associated with spinal cartilage degeneration may include:
- Radiating pain felt in arms, shoulders, hips, or legs
- Numbness and tingling sensations
- Noticeable reduction in range of motion
- Difficulty walking
Since the symptoms typically experienced with spinal cartilage degeneration can also be associated with other sources of back, neck, or radiating pain, diagnosis usually involves an examination, a review of medical history, and image testing. X-rays won’t show cartilage damage, so an MRI or CT scan is often done to make a positive diagnosis. To a get a better look at the affected part of the spine, some doctors opt for an arthroscopy, which is a minimally invasive procedure performed with a special tube that has a lighted camera attached to it.
Non-Surgical Treatment Options
Exercise is often recommended as part of initial treatment for spinal cartilage degeneration because some people with spine-related pain from cartilage breakdown get into the habit of not exercising regularly. However, avoiding exercise can weaken muscles that provide some type of support to the spine, which forces the backbone and its discs to absorb more pressure from daily movements. Most patients with spinal cartilage degeneration respond well to conservative (non-surgical) treatments, which may include:
- Massage therapy
- Targeted exercise routines
- Pain or anti-inflammatory medications
- Strength training and stretching
Surgery is rarely necessary for spinal cartilage degeneration unless conservative treatments are failing to provide relief. Severe degeneration may be treated with an arthroscopic procedure that involves removing damaged parts of cartilage. Surgery may also be an option if there is a related issue contributing to your discomfort, such as a herniated disc that’s compressing nerves. Cartilage damage is sometimes minimized with artificial disc replacement or a fusion if the spine has become unstable. There are also a wide variety of spinal fusion alternatives.
Age-related wear affecting any of the vertebrae, muscles, ligaments, discs, and connective tissues of the spine isn’t entirely preventable. However, you can take better care of your spine and its supporting structures by making smart lifestyle choices. Regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and good posture can help your spine respond better to issues that may develop due to age-related changes or normal activities and movements.
If you have spinal cartilage degeneration or another condition causing pain in your neck or back and think you might need surgery, reach out to The Spine Institute. We specialize in fusion and non-fusion procedures such as XLIF surgery, spinal decompression, and cervical disc replacement surgery. Beverly Hills patients should call 310-828-7757 today.