The spine is made up of a collection of vertebrae, nerves, and cushioning tissues that allow the spine to move freely without bone-on-bone friction. As you age, the cushioning tissues between the bones of the spine can start to deteriorate, much like muscles and other soft tissues can degenerate with age. This condition is known as degenerative disc disease (DDD), and one type of DDD are thinning discs. A thinning disc can bring about immense levels of pain for some people. Let’s take a closer look at the condition, how to treat a thinning disc, and more.
A Closer Look at Thinning Spinal Discs
A spine has 23 total discs in its makeup; 5 in the lumbar, 12 in the thoracic, and 6 in the cervical spine. These discs actually account for up to 33 percent of the full length of the spine, they absorb shock when you move, and give the spine flexibility and strength. Each disc is made up of three important components:
- The interior nucleus pulposus, which is made up of gelatinous collagen and water
- The outer annulus fibrosus, which is made up of multiple layers of fibrous tissue
- The endplates that connect the disc to the vertebrae. Endplates have two layers: a bony layer and a cartilaginous layer.
When these discs start to deteriorate due to DDD, cell death occurs and causes the nucleus pulposus to shrink and become more fibrous instead of soft and gelatinous. This causes the disc to take on a more flattened state, which can reduce spinal motility and lead to several undesirable symptoms. The condition is diagnosed as a thinning disc related to DDD.
How Do You Know if Your Discs Are Thinning?
In reality, not every individual who has thinning discs will experience major symptoms. While a thin disc can mean you are more likely to experience issues, you may only notice issues if the thinning disc shifts or bulges in a way that impinges on surrounding nerves. In the most severe cases, the fragments of the disc can be so brittle that they break off, which can also cause irritation to the surrounding spinal nerves. Some of the symptoms you may experience with thinning discs include localized, ongoing neck or back pain, weakness in muscles, or nerve pain.
The collection of symptoms you experience can vary depending on which spinal disc is affected. For example, a thinning disc in your cervical spine (which is primarily the neck) could lead to more pain and discomfort in your upper back and arms.
How to Treat a Thinning Disc Problem in the Spine
When determining how to treat a thinning disc, a doctor will look at where the disc is located, the severity of the degeneration, and your overall health. You have a number of options for treatment, but each type of treatment is not the most suitable for every patient, and, sometimes, more than one treatment may be used if more than one disc is affected. Let’s look at some of the most common treatments for thinning disc issues.
The #1 treatment for thinning disc is physical therapy. A physical therapist will assist with lifestyle modification along with stretching and specific exercises to improve joint motion and help relieve pain. Additionally, the patient will be given anti-inflammatories or analgesics to help reduce inflammation and reduce pain in the joints. If the patient is still experiencing pain following physical therapy, the medical procedures below may be considered.
Medical Branch Block (MBB) & Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA)
Medical Branch Block (MBB) and Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) are two separate procedures performed 10-14 days apart. The MBB is a diagnostic procedure to identify the source of the pain which is done by injecting anesthetic medication around the medial branch nerves of the spine. If the patient experiences pain relief, then they will be scheduled for the RFA. RFA involves using a targeted ultra-energy radiofrequency pulse to inactivate nerves surrounding a thinning disc that are causing uncomfortable sensations. Essentially, the treatment stops the nerves from being able to send pain signals, so any impingement from the fragmented or thinned disc does not result in pain. While RFA is effective, the nerves can regenerate over time, so the treatment may not be the most permanent solution.
If physical therapy and MBB & RFA fail and the patient is experiencing severe pain and inability to function, then the patient may undergo a surgical procedure. The purpose of a lumbar fusion is to stop motion at a painful vertebral segment to help relieve pain generated from the joint. Lumbar fusion involves surgical removal of the thinned, degenerated disc material and fusing the two vertebrae together. Through fusion, the two vertebrae, normally connected by a supportive disc, will no longer move against each other. Instead, the two vertebrae operate together as one seamless bone thanks to a reinforced implant between them.
Anterior Cervical Disc Fusion (ACDF)
Much like lumbar fusion, ACDF involves surgical removal of the affected disc and fusion of the two vertebrae that surround it. A reinforced implant goes between the vertebrae to make the two bones more stable. The vertebrae no longer move and shift, which can slightly affect the range of motion but does permanently relieve the pressure and pain that can come along with the two bones moving against each other with little cushion between.
Find Out More About How to Treat Thinning Disc
When it comes to problems with your spine, it is critical that you work with an experienced team of medical professionals to find relief. While thinning discs are a common condition that affects people as they age, there is no reason to deal with pain and mobility issues because of the condition when there are so many treatment options available. The BioSpine Institute specializes in thinning disc treatment and minimally invasive spine surgery to help you get the pain relief you need. Reach out to us today to find the right spinal treatment option for you.