The natural aging process is responsible for many changes in the body, including ones involving the spongy discs that cushion vertebrae in the spine. The resulting degeneration causes the discs of the spine to gradually become thinner, which means less protection for the spine’s bones and the possibility of experiencing pain and other disruptive symptoms related to disc damage or nerve irritation. Here’s what you need to know about thinning spinal discs and the treatments that are available.
Spinal disc thinning is similar to degenerative disc disease (the general term for age-related disc wear) in the sense that it’s progressive changes that occur with age that cause discs to become thinner. Specifically, the jelly-like nucleus (nucleus pulposus) loses fluid over time, which can reduce the affected disc’s sponginess. The harder outer layer of disc (annulus fibrosus) may become brittle as well. Arthritis can also contribute to disc thinning. The condition is also problematic because it reduces disc height, sometimes to the point where spinal stability is affected.
As is the case with degenerative disc disease, it’s possible to have thinning spinal discs that produce little or no symptoms. If changes to disc consistency do result in discomfort, the pain may be relegated to the affected area within the neck or lower back. Related symptoms may also include: • Pain triggered by certain movements • Numbness and tingling sensations • Noticeable reduction in range of motion in the affected area • Weakness extending to spine-supporting muscles • Radiating pain that extends to nearby locations (e.g., arms, shoulders, upper thighs, legs)
Symptoms suggesting you may have a thinning spinal disc shouldn’t be ignored. If left untreated, you could develop more serious related conditions like disc herniation or nerve impingement. After your Santa Monica spine surgeon has made a positive diagnosis with a thorough examination, image tests, and specialized testing that may include the injection of a special dye (myelogram or discogram), treatment usually involves conservative (non-surgical) efforts. There’s no treatment that can reverse disc thinning or restore lost disc height. However, it’s often possible to minimize disc thinning and manage symptoms from existing issues with spinal disc thinning effectively. Common non-surgical treatment options include: • Therapeutic physical therapy exercises • Posture improvements • Stretching techniques • Water-based therapy (e.g., water aerobics, core strengthening exercises done in a heated pool) • Spinal injections that may include nerve blocks • Massage therapy and other types of passive physical therapy • Behavior modification • Yoga and other gentle forms of exercise • Pain medications and/or anti-inflammatory drugs Unless you’re experiencing severe symptoms from nerve compression, surgery is rarely necessary just because of thinning spine discs. However, if conservative treatment efforts aren’t effectively managing your discomfort, you may benefit from lumbar or cervical artificial disc replacement surgery. Santa Monica residents’ options include disc removal followed by spinal fusion or the replacement of a thin, damaged disc with an artificial disc. Artificial disc replacement is especially appealing because the synthetic disc doesn’t reduce mobility in the affected area. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of thinning spinal discs, contact the spine specialists at The Spine Institute. We specialize in a wide array of fusion and non-fusion surgeries, including artificial disc replacement. If you’re looking for relief from chronic spine pain, call us at 310-828-7757 and schedule an appointment.