The spine, or backbone, is a structure that supports the body and connects various parts of the musculoskeletal system. Thanks to your spine, you can sit, walk, stand, bend, and twist easily.
A healthy spine consists of three curves responsible for its S-shape. These natural curves absorb shocks and protect the spine from damage and injury. Other parts that make up the spine include the vertebrae, intervertebral disks, spinal cord, and soft tissues.
However, numerous conditions may affect the spine due to accidents, inflammation, infection, degenerative wear and tear, and others. This can lead to symptoms affecting other body parts such as back pain, bowel and bladder dysfunction, nausea, numbness, and weakness.
If you or a loved one shows symptoms of spine disorders, consult your doctor immediately to prevent lifelong consequences (e.g., paralysis). You may visit Dickinson Neurological Surgery or other professionals specializing in treating conditions associated with the spine.
So, what are these conditions affecting the spine? Here’s a comprehensive rundown of the most common spine disorders that can happen to anyone:
A herniated disk is commonly known as a bulging, ruptured, or slipped disk. It’s a common cause of leg, back, and neck pain. In most cases, herniated disks heal with proper rest or basic home care remedies.
A herniated disk is one of the most common injuries to the spine. The spine consists of a stack of bones (vertebrae) stretching from the skull to the tailbone (coccyx).
Between these series of bones are cushions known as disks, which act as buffers to help you move and bend without a problem. If any of these disks bulge, slip, leak, or tear, you have a herniated disk.
Symptoms of a herniated disk are as follows:
- Back pain
- Numbness in the feet and legs
- Weakening of the muscles
- Pain around the shoulder blades
- Pain that radiates to your arms, shoulders, hands, and fingers
- Pain that intensifies when the neck is bent or turned
- Numbness of the arms
- Neck pain
In most cases, a herniated disk heals on its own. To reduce the pain, rest for 1-3 days, take pain relievers (e.g., ibuprofen and acetaminophen), and apply a hot or cold compress to the affected area. However, consider seeing a doctor if the pain disrupts your everyday living, symptoms worsen, your bladder or bowel dysfunctions, and you’re having trouble walking.
Cervical spondylosis is a term used to describe the age-related wear and tear of the spinal disks in the neck. As you age, these disks shrink and dehydrate, leading to osteoporosis and bone spurs, bony projections on the edges of the bone.
Cervical spondylosis is common and gets worse with age. In fact, approximately 85% of people aged 60 and above have this condition. In most cases, cervical spondylosis has no symptoms, but if there are any, consult your doctor immediately.
Possible symptoms of cervical spondylosis are as follows:
- Weakness and numbness of the feet, legs, arms, and hands
- Having difficulty walking
- Lack of body coordination
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
If any of these symptoms persist, seek medical attention immediately for proper treatment and to prevent the condition from worsening.
Osteoarthritis (OA), or degenerative joint disease, is a common type of arthritis that typically occurs in the spine, hips, knees, and hands. It occurs when cartilage becomes rough or starts to wear down, causing the vertebrae to rub each other.
Here are the symptoms of OA:
- Reduced range of motion
OA sometimes causes disability and impairs function; individuals can no longer perform everyday tasks. In addition, OA is more common in women than men and tends to worsen over time.
Unfortunately, OA can’t be reversed, but therapy, exercise, and pain relievers may help alleviate the symptoms. Surgery may be warranted if the following nonsurgical treatment options haven’t been effective.
Spinal stenosis is characterized by the narrowing of the spaces within the spine, which also reduces the amount of space within the spinal cord and its nerves. This can cause the spinal cord and its nerves to irritate, pinch, or compress, leading to sciatica or back pain.
Spinal stenosis typically develops with age and is commonly caused by OA or the wear and tear that naturally occurs in the spine. This is why individuals with this condition may not experience symptoms even though the X-ray shows changes in the spinal structure.
Possible symptoms of spinal stenosis include:
- Lower back pain that comes and goes (electric-like, burning, and dull pain)
- Pain that radiates to the buttocks, legs, and feet
- Numbness of the feet, buttocks, legs, and arms
- Weakness of the legs or feet (when the stenosis gets worse)
- Pain that gets worse when standing or walking downhill
- Neck pain
- Balance problems
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
Can spinal stenosis cause paralysis? Yes, stenosis can lead to paralysis if the compression of the spinal cord and its nerves is left untreated for a long time. That’s why it’s important to visit a doctor if your legs or arms become numb or weak.
Sciatica refers to mild to moderate pain due to sciatic nerve irritation or compression. It’s often confused with back pain, but it’s more than that. The sciatic nerve stretches from the lower back to the knees, controlling several muscles and supplying sensation to the foot and the lower leg.
Symptoms of sciatica include the following:
- Pain along the sciatic nerve
- Numbness of the leg along the sciatic nerve
- Tingling in the toes and feet
The sciatic pain may vary depending on the severity of the condition and may worsen by sitting for an extended period.
Scoliosis refers to the abnormal curving of the spine and is often diagnosed during childhood. The natural spinal curve occurs in the sagittal plane, which consists of cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions. It acts as a shock absorber and distributes stress when moving.
So, what causes scoliosis? The primary cause of scoliosis can be congenital or neuromuscular. Congenital scoliosis is a result of malformation of the vertebrae and may take place anywhere in the spine. Neurological scoliosis, on the other hand, is associated with other conditions, including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, and muscular atrophy.
There are plenty of signs that may indicate the possibility of scoliosis. If any of the following symptoms appear, set an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
- Uneven shoulders (shoulder blades may protrude)
- The head isn’t centered above the pelvic bone
- Hips are unusually high
- Rib cages are irregular (one or both may be unusually high)
- Uneven waist
- The skin texture overlays the changes in the spine
Scoliosis can be treated with bracing or surgery. However, bracing only applies to individuals who haven’t reached skeletal maturity. Doctors may recommend braces for children who are still growing to prevent their curves from worsening.
Surgery may help diminish the deformity of the spine. However, it’s only recommended when the curve is greater than 40 degrees and there are worsening symptoms.
Kyphosis is characterized by excessive curving of the spine, resulting in an abnormal rounding of the upper and lower back. This condition is also known as roundback or hunchback—for severe cases—and may occur at any age but is more common in adolescents.
In most cases, kyphosis doesn’t require treatment and may only cause a couple of problems. Sometimes, you may need to wear a brace or exercise to improve your posture and strengthen the spine.
The symptoms of kyphosis may vary, depending on the severity of the curve, but may include the following:
- Rounded shoulders
- A hump on the back
- Stiffness on the spine
- Tight hamstring
- Loss of sensation
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Breathing difficulties
The natural curves of the spine are essential because they help people stand upright. If any of these curves become impaired (too small or too large), it’ll be difficult to stand properly and the posture will seem abnormal.
Spondylolisthesis refers to the instability of the spine. This means the vertebrae are moving more than they should. When a vertebra is out of position, a nerve may be pressured, leading to leg or lower back pain.
Spondylolisthesis originates from the Greek words spondylos, meaning vertebra or spine, and listhesis, meaning sliding or slipping.
There are different types of spondylolisthesis: congenital, isthmic, and degenerative spondylolisthesis. Congenital happens before birth; isthmic is a result of spondylosis; degenerative, the most common type, develops with age.
Below are the signs and symptoms of spondylolisthesis:
- Muscle spasms, particularly the muscle at the back of the thighs (hamstrings)
- Stiff back
- Difficulty standing or walking for extended periods
- Pain when the body bends over
- Weakness or numbness of the feet
Spondylolisthesis can be treated with rest, medications (e.g., ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.), steroid injections, bracing, and physical therapy. However, you may need surgery if nonsurgical treatments aren’t effective.
You may reduce the risk of spondylolisthesis by exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a balanced diet. This will keep your bones strong, reduce the weight on your back, and strengthen your back muscles.
Ankylosing spondylitis (AS), or Beckthrew disease, is a type of arthritis that may cause stiffness and pain in the spine. This chronic condition typically develops in the lower back and may travel up to the neck and damage other body parts.
What does ankylosing spondylitis mean? Ankylosis means hard tissues or fused bones while spondylitis means inflammation of the vertebrae. Severe cases can lead to a hunched spine.
AS often develops at the sacroiliac joints where the pelvic and the spine meets. This may affect the areas where the ligaments and tendons connect to the bones, leading to pain or stiffness in the following parts of the body:
- Rib cage
- Lower back
You may also notice the symptoms such as:
- Pain that intensifies after sitting for extended periods
- A spine that curves or protrudes forward
- Breathing difficulties, particularly when taking deep breaths
- Joint swelling
Unfortunately, AS can’t be cured, but there are other ways to relieve the pain such as exercising regularly, receiving physical therapy, or maintaining a healthy weight. Medications such as indomethacin may also help. However, there’s a possibility of heart problems, stomach bleeding, and other adverse effects.
Degenerative Disk Disease
Degenerative disk disease occurs when the natural changes in the spine cause pain. Spinal disks act as shock absorbers and keep your back flexible so you can easily bend and twist. But as you age, the disks may show signs of wear and tear.
Most people experience some of their spinal disks breaking down with age. However, not all of them may feel pain. If they do, they have degenerative disk disease. So, what causes this condition?
- Loss of water in the spine (flat disks can’t absorb shock effectively, leading to wear and tear)
- Crack (stress due to everyday movements and injuries may cause tiny tears)
Here are the common symptoms of degenerative disk disease:
- Pain that gets worse when sitting
- Pain that gets better when moving or walking
- Pain that gets worse when lifting, bending, or twisting
- Pain that gets better when lying down or changing positions
- Pain that comes and goes
- Pain in the buttocks, upper thighs, or lower back
Sometimes, degenerative disk disease can cause tingling or numbness in the arms and legs. It can also weaken your leg muscles, meaning the affected disks affect the nerves around your spine.
Myelopathy is a spinal cord injury due to trauma, herniated disks, degenerative disk disease, and other conditions that may compress the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a network of nerves inside the spine. If any part of the spinal cord experience compression or constriction, the result is myelopathy.
Symptoms of myelopathy may include:
- Pain in the lower back, arms, legs, and neck
- Weakness and numbness of the arms and legs
- Difficulty writing or performing basic motor skills
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Lack of coordination
Keep in mind that symptoms may vary depending on where myelopathy develops. For example, if myelopathy develops within the thoracic region of the spine, there’s a possibility of symptoms in the lower back.
These are the most common spinal disorders that can happen to anyone. Take note of the symptoms in each condition and observe your body. If any of the symptoms discussed above appear, consult a spine doctor immediately. If left untreated, the disorder may worsen, which could lead to permanent paralysis of the body.