The spine is the long column of vertebral bones and disc that protect the spinal cord and the many nerves that branch off from it and provide function and movement to nearly every area of the body. When a part of the spine becomes damaged, moved or worn down, it can affect these nerves and cause pain in the back, legs and arms, as well as serious complications and other conditions.
The spine is classified into three different areas:
- Cervical (neck)
- Thoracic (mid back)
- Lumbar (lower back)
The cervical and lumbar spine are most commonly affected by injury and disease because of their frequent use and pressure put on them from sitting, standing, sleeping and working. Each of these areas of the spine is composed of several vertebrae and a disc in between each set, which cushions the vertebrae and prevents them from rubbing against each other. The discs may rupture or herniate as a result of injury or degeneration, causing pain radiating through the body.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease refers to the changes that occur to the spinal discs as part of the body's natural aging process. Spinal discs separate the vertebrae, the interconnected bones of which the spine is composed. While degenerative disc disease can occur anywhere within the spine, it most commonly affects the neck (cervical) and the lower back (lumbar) areas.
In addition to age, degenerative disc disease can occur as a result of small tears in a disc. These small tears lead to the release of nucleus, a jelly-like material found in the disc, which can cause the disc to bulge or rupture. Degenerative disc disease can also stem from a herniated disc. As with many conditions, those who smoke or are obese are at a higher risk of developing degenerative disc disease.
The symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary. Depending on the location of the degenerating disc, individuals may experience pain in the neck, back, arm, leg, or buttocks. In some cases, no pain is experienced, causing the condition to remain unnoticed. It is important to see a doctor if you experience persistent pain in any of the aforementioned areas.
An intervertebral disc is located in between the bones (vertebrae) of the spine to provide cushioning support and flexibility within the spine. However, these discs may become damaged and tear or move out of place. A herniated disc, also known as a ruptured or slipped disc, is a common condition that may occur as a result of gradual wear and tear on the disc or from a spinal injury that cracks or tears the disc and causes it to bulge or break open.
Patients with a herniated disc may experience pain, numbness and weakness in the affected area as the disc presses on the nearby nerve roots. The location of the affected disc determines the location of the pain. For example, a herniated disc in the lower back may cause pain through the buttock and down the leg, a condition known as sciatica.
Your doctor can diagnose this condition after performing a physical examination and taking X-ray images of the affected area. He or she will also ask you questions about your symptoms in order to rule out other conditions and confirm the diagnosis. The symptoms associated with a herniated disc can usually be managed with over-the-counter pain medication and therapeutic exercises; surgery is only required for the most severe cases. Your doctor will develop a customized treatment plan for your individual condition.
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