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Disc degeneration. Do I need to be concerned?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Your spine or backbone is made up of a column of bones called vertebrae. Found in between each of the bones is a jelly like substance called your intervertebral disc. Each disc is made up of two components, a soft centre (called the nucleus pulposus) surrounded by a tough outer surface (called the annulus fibrosis). The function of each disc is to provide shock absorption between each vertebra.

As people become older, it is normal and natural for the disc in the spine to wear down and weaken, but not everyone will experience pain or symptoms when a disc/s has broken down. A degenerative disc can cause several different spinal conditions such as a disc bulge, disc herniation, spinal stenosis, or spondylolisthesis.

A disc bulge involves the sagging outwards of the disc. With a disc herniation, the outer covering of the disc ruptures leading to a leakage of the jelly like substance. A spinal stenosis involves a narrowing of spaces in the spine, whilst a spondylolisthesis refers to when a vertebrae above has slipped forward relative to the one below it.

Often imaging investigations, such as an MRI may report of an ‘abnormal’ finding of your spine, for example suggesting of disc bulges in different areas of the spine. However, it is important to recognize that these ‘abnormal’ findings can be commonly seen in scans!

The type of symptoms resulting from these spinal conditions varies from person to person and is dependent on which nerves are being irritated or pressed down on by the disc or vertebrae. For some people symptoms such as pain can be long lasting, whereas in most people, pain experienced may persist for only a short period of time before eventually resolving.

Fortunately, for those that have a disc degenerative condition and associated pain, with physiotherapy treatment, most people can recover. Physiotherapists utilize many strategies in their toolbox, such as exercise, supportive devices and education of the condition and positions to help support local muscles and the spine.

If you are concerned about your symptoms or the findings from some of the investigations you have had completed, don’t hesitate to discuss it further with our physiotherapists.

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