Degenerative disc disease of the neck, also called cervical disc disease, is actually a form of arthritis that affects the portion of the spine that forms the neck, down to the beginning of the thoracic spine. This condition may be unnoticed at first, but pain and discomfort will begin and then increase over time. In most cases, it is due to simple wear and tear, and the body’s inability to heal the damage caused over time.
What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Your spine is made up of many different vertebrae, each working in tandem with the one above and below it. Because vertebrae must remain separate in order to function properly, they have joints between them that allow them to move with the body. Of course, the ends of the vertebrae must be protected – they cannot be allowed to rub against one another, or it would cause pain and bone loss, followed by bone overgrowth.
In a healthy spine, the joints between vertebrae are filled with discs – small gaskets that act as shock absorbers. However, over time and through normal wear and tear, those discs will begin to shrink, and lose their ability to absorb shock and damage.
To be clear, almost everyone suffers from disc degeneration over time. It’s simply a fact of life. However, for many people, minor degradation does not cause any pain or discomfort. For others, it can cause a great deal of discomfort. These individuals are usually diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, although it may eventually develop into osteoarthritis for some people.
What Are the Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?
The symptoms of degenerative disc disease can vary a great deal depending on the individual and the degree of degeneration. In the very early stages, they may not even notice the condition. However, as it progresses, more pronounced symptoms will appear. These include pain that can be minor, severe, or even disabling, pain that radiates from the neck down the arms, pain when bending, pain when moving, pain that reduces when lying down, and numbness in the extremities.
What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?
As mentioned, degenerative disc disease is actually part of the natural aging process. No external force is necessary to create this condition. As we age, the discs between our vertebrae begin to dry out. As they dry, they shrink and are no longer able to maintain their original height. This allows the spine to compress – individual vertebrae become closer together. This reduces our overall height, but it also leads to compression.
Additionally, as the discs dry, they become more fragile. Injuries can cause inflammation and pain, as well as instability. Even daily living activities can cause tears to the disc that make movement painful and difficult. The discs may bulge, compressing nerves and the very spinal cord; the inner part may leak out, chemically irritating nerve roots and causing irritation and pain.
Conventional Treatments for Sufferers
If disc degeneration does not cause any symptoms, then no treatment is needed. However, if pain and difficulty moving do occur, there are a number of different treatment options available.
Medication: Medications, particularly NSAIDs, are used to help reduce the amount of pain and inflammation individuals might be suffering. If NSAIDs do not work that well, steroidal medications may be prescribed. Opioids may also be an option depending on the severity of the symptoms, but their long term use may pathologically sustain pain. Muscle relaxants and anti-seizure medications are frequently helpful.
Modification of Activity: In some cases, a modification of the individual’s activity is necessary. This may be combined with medication or other forms of treatment.
Epidural: In some cases, an epidural injection of steroids or pain medication may be necessary to alleviate the symptoms, although this carries with it risks.
Physical and Occupational Therapy: Therapy with the goal of building muscular strength may also be a treatment option depending on the severity of symptoms. TENS units are frequently helpful.
Surgery: In a worst-case scenario, surgery may be necessary. This is usually reserved only for those who have exhausted their non-surgical options, and who have an abnormality that can be corrected with surgery. It may also be done to alleviate severe spinal compression.
How Stem Cell Therapy May Help Degenerative Disc Disease
Stem cells are the foundation of the body’s ability to heal and regenerate. They predate all other cell types within the body, and can even transform themselves into different cell types to facilitate further healing. As such, a significant amount of research is ongoing into how stem cells might be used to treat a myriad of conditions, including degenerative disc disease by rebuilding discs, decreasing inflammation and improving local blood supply.
To date, several important studies have been performed using stem cells. One study conducted and published in 2011 used autologous mesenchymal stem cells in an attempt to achieve intervertebral disc repair. The study involved only 10 patients, but did find that stem cell treatment was both safe and effective.
Another study, the third phase of an ongoing clinical trial by UC Davis Health, focused on using mesenchymal precursor cells injected into the site of discomfort. A third study published in the journal Advances in Orthopedics focuses on the growing prevalence of degenerative disc disease as a whole (the entire spine), as well as promising new treatments, such as the use of mesenchymal stem cells.
Stem Cell Type Matters
In the studies mentioned above, autologous mesenchymal stem cells were used – these are harvested from the patient’s own body, generally from fatty tissues, but sometimes from bone marrow. However, this can be problematic. Because a patient’s own stem cells are the same age as their entire body, those cells have lost a great deal of their regenerative capabilities. They have also accreted damage and mutations through the aging process that may trigger an immune system response.
A better solution, possibly, is to use allogeneic mesenchymal stem cells, which are harvested from banked umbilical cord blood. These are very young, highly energetic cells with undiminished healing potential. And, because they’re essentially invisible to the immune system, there is no risk of rejection.
Stem cell therapy is incredibly promising, particularly for helping patients dealing with degenerative disc disease. However, a great deal of research is still needed. Currently, no such treatments have been approved by the FDA, and any available therapies are considered experimental only.