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Degenerative Spinal Conditions

Degenerative spinal conditions include degenerative disc disease, herniated and ruptured discs, myelopathy, spinal arthritis, radiculopathies, spondylolisthesis, spinal stenosis and more.

WakeMed’s neurosurgeons and neurologists work in collaboration with other physicians, nurses, neuroradiologists and rehabilitation specialists to develop a personalized treatment plan for corrective approaches to these painful and, at times, debilitating conditions.

Symptoms of Degenerative Spinal Conditions

In addition to back pain, other symptoms may include:

  • Headaches and/or neck, shoulder or thigh pain
  • Weakness, numbness and/or tingling in arms and legs
  • Stiffness in back, neck or thighs
  • Difficulty balancing, walking or standing for long periods

Types and Causes of Degenerative Spinal Conditions

Often, degenerative spinal conditions result from aging, but they take many forms and can also have other risk factors.

  • Degenerative disc disease occurs when there is wear and tear on one or more of the discs that cushion the bones (vertebrae) in your spine. It happens as a result of aging, obesity, smoking, genetics, physical labor or previous spinal injury or herniated disc.
  • Herniated/ruptured disc occurs when a crack in the tough outer layer of cartilage allows some of the soft inner cartilage to protrude out of the disk. Discs are cushions between the vertebrae in the spine, and as you age, they lose water content that keeps them flexible.
  • Myelopathy occurs when compression of the spinal cord leads to nerve injury. The three types are cervical (neck region), thoracic (mid-spine) and lumbar (lower-spine) myelopathy. Myelopathy typically occurs in older individuals as a result of natural wear over time, but it can also be caused by a number of other issues, such as an infection in the spinal cord, a spinal tumor and more.
  • Spinal arthritis is pain and stiffness in the back and/or neck often caused by wear over time. Other risk factors may include obesity, genetics and autoimmune disorders.
  • Radiculopathies are caused by compression of the nerve root in the spine. They often result from a sedentary lifestyle where you spend a lot of time sitting or driving. You may also be at risk if you are a biological male, have a chronic cough, are a smoker, are pregnant or do a lot of heavy lifting.
  • Spondylolisthesis occurs when one vertebrae slips onto the bone below it. It requires urgent medical care and can last for years or be lifelong. Men are more susceptible.
  • Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spinal cord is compressed by a narrowing spinal column. It is more common in people as they age and if they have a genetic predisposition.

Diagnosing Degenerative Spinal Conditions

Neurological exams and imaging tests, including X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, nerve conduction studies (NCS), electromyography (EMG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may be taken. These tests help us visualize the internal structures in the back, including nerves, spinal cord, bones and soft tissues. You may also be given contrast dye to help the spinal canal show up better in the pictures, so alert your doctor if you’re allergic to contrast dye.

Treating Degenerative Spinal Conditions

Many patients can control their pain with self-care, medication and physical therapy.

Self-care may include heat to reduce tightness and muscle spasms and cold to numb the nerve pain. If the injury is to the cervical spine, self-care may also include a neck brace to relieve pressure and slow progression of degeneration. Depending on the type of degenerative disorder, you may also need rest or relief from physical activity.

Medications include NSAIDs, acetaminophen, prescription pain medication and spinal injections.

We offer comprehensive physical therapy services in many convenient locations. Learn more about our rehab and physical therapy services.

Surgery may be the best option for patients with severe debilitation:

  • Have pain that limits their daily activities
  • Are unable to stand or walk normally
  • Experience persistent weakness and numbness
  • Cannot move your arm or leg
  • Loss of bowel and bladder function

Surgeons can repair or remove the vertebrae, replace damaged discs, widen the passageway for spinal nerve roots or fuse the spine.

Make an Appointment

We welcome new patients. If you’d like to meet with one of WakeMed’s neurological experts, please make an appointment by calling us at 919-350-7000.