Watkins Medical Centre
Level 8, 225 Wickham Terrace,
Spring Hill QLD, 4000

All appointments
Phone: (07) 3831 7034

Disc Degeneration

Degeneration of the intervertbral discs in the spine is one of the most certain things in life.  As a child the disc nucleus is filled with a liquid gel substance. As you get older this gel becomes more solid as it loses water. It then begins to take on the consistency of 'crab meat'. As this happens the disc gets less resilient and more prone to injury. Injuries can be major, as in the case of a heavy fall, or they can occur as multiple small injuries, such as with years of heavy work. These injuries tend to cause small tears either in  the outside of the disc (the annulus) or in the nucleus. Tears in the disc tend to cause it to lose more water and become less resilient and this, in turn, causes further tears. After a while to process becomes irreversible.


The consequences of disc degeneration are:

  • The disc narrows
  • The normal disc angle is lost, causing the spine and vertebra above to angle forward
  • The facet joints become arthritic
  • Bony spurs develop on the edges of the disc and the facet joints
  • Nerves get compressed causing pain in the limb (sciatica)
  • The segment of the spine becomes less able to take load and deforms abnormally under load causing pain and further nerve pressure

Disc degeneration tends to progress through phases.

  • In the initial phase  the disc is 'unstable'. There are often sudden episodes of back pain with reasonably minor injuries. The pain comes in attacks and while the attacks may be severe they are short lived. This often causes symptoms of acute instability syndrome.
  • A phase of becomming more stable. This may be painless, though when it does cause pain it is of a lower intensity and is more constant.
  • A phase of loss of vertical height and collapse. During this phase nerves may be compressed and pain may develop in the limbs. This condition is called spinal stenosis.
  • Often a phase of stabilization where, as long as there is no nerve compression, there is little pain.

The above phases take many years.