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Collapsed disc information

A collapsed disc is a condition that occurs when a disc in the spine simply loses its height, often due to age and the natural wear of the spine over years.

Causes of a collapsed disc

A disc in the spine is comprised of two main parts: a tough, elastic outer layer called the annulus fibrosus and a gel-like center called the nucleus pulposus. These two parts work together to keep the disc at the proper height and stability to support the surrounding vertebrae, while allowing for movement and a full range of motion.

However, as years of wear and tear weaken the components of the spine, the discs may also begin to weaken. Often, discs dehydrate with age, causing the fluid in the nucleus to dry up. When this happens, the disc may lose height and collapse — or shrink in size.

A collapsed disc is not necessarily a problem and can often regenerate with certain lifestyle changes, such as drinking more water, stretching and low-impact exercises for weight loss. In some cases, the disc does not repair naturally and may continue to collapse, causing the two surrounding vertebrae to rub against each other. When this happens, a bone spur can form and irritate a nearby nerve, leading to a series of painful symptoms.

Symptoms of a collapsed disc

A collapsed disc can often occur without any symptoms. Unlike a herniated or bulging disc that protrudes outward and risks pinching a nerve, a collapsed disc simply deteriorates inwardly and does not have a high risk of nerve compression.

However, a collapsed disc does cause instability in the spine, which can lead to the development of other spine conditions, such as a bone spur. These conditions could pinch a nerve and cause severe symptoms, such as:

  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Inability to move certain ways
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Burning sensation
  • Sciatica (if condition is in lower back)

Because a collapsed disc is often degenerative in nature, these symptoms can worsen over time if left untreated. If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms over a few weeks and they are gradually increasing in severity, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine your best course of action for treatment.

Diagnosing a collapsed disc

A collapsed disc is sometimes difficult to diagnose because the symptoms could be related to another degenerative spine condition, as mentioned above. Your doctor will most likely use a physical exam and imaging test, such as an MRI or CT scan, to determine if a collapsed disc is the cause of your pain.

During the physical exam, your doctor will press into areas of your spine and the associated nerve pathways to determine the location of your pain. This will also help your doctor determine if your symptoms have traveled to other areas along your nerve pathways. For example, a pinched nerve in the lower back can send symptoms down the buttocks, legs and feet.

Once your doctor locates the root area of your pain, he or she will likely order an imaging test to view that area of the spine and diagnose the cause of your pain. At this point, you will go over treatment options and begin to take steps toward pain relief.

Conservative treatment for a collapsed disc

In some cases, a collapsed disc will regenerate naturally through the resorption process — the process by which the body absorbs any extruded disc material and begins to heal a damaged disc — or through the body’s natural healing process. This process usually takes about three months, while the symptoms present during the process can be managed with conservative treatments.

These treatments are designed to help relieve pressure on the pinched nerve near the collapsed disc that is causing your pain and symptoms. In some cases, these treatments can also block pain signals the pinched nerve is sending to the brain, thereby reducing the symptoms felt.

Common conservative treatments for a collapsed disc include:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Yoga and stretching
  • Weight loss
  • Corticosteroid injections

If after three months you have not experienced a significant decrease in your symptoms, your doctor may recommend a more advanced treatment option: spine surgery.

Spine surgery to treat a collapsed disc

A collapsed disc can be treated through various methods of spine surgery. While all surgical options come with potential risks and benefits, the minimally invasive spine surgery at Laser Spine Institute is an alternative to a highly invasive traditional open neck or back surgery.

During a minimally invasive procedure to treat a collapsed disc, our surgeons use a less than 1-inch incision to reach the spine, avoiding unnecessary muscle disruption and damage. This minimal incision allows our patients to experience a shorter recovery time^ and lower risk of complication than patients who choose traditional open neck or back surgery.

To find out if you are a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures, ask for a no-cost MRI review* from our Laser Spine Institute team today. We can help you make the best decision for your collapsed disc treatment.