Degenerative Conditions Of The Spine

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Dr Kau Chung Yuan (许医生)


MRCS (Ireland)

MMed (Ortho)

FRCSEd (Ortho)


What are Degenerative Conditions of the Spine?

Degenerative conditions of the spine encompass a range of disorders that result from the progressive deterioration of the components of the spine over time.

The spine, a complex structure pivotal for movement and support, comprises vertebrae, intervertebral discs, ligaments, and joints. With ageing or due to other factors, these components can wear down or degenerate, leading to various spinal conditions.

Common Types of Degenerative Spinal Conditions

  • Osteoarthritis
    Known as spondylosis, this involves the gradual degeneration of the cartilage between the joints in the vertebrae, leading to bone spurs (osteophytes) and potential nerve impingement, causing pain and nerve-related symptoms.
  • Degenerative Disc Disease
    This refers to the deterioration of the intervertebral discs, which lose height and elasticity, reducing their ability to cushion the spine, causing pain and stiffness.
  • Spinal Stenosis
    Characterised by the narrowing of the spinal canal, this condition can result from the thickening of ligaments, formation of bone spurs, or herniation of discs, leading to pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, causing pain, numbness, or weakness.
  • Herniated Discs
    This occurs when the inner material of a disc protrudes through a tear in the outer layer, potentially compressing nearby nerves and causing pain, numbness, or weakness in the back, arms, or legs.
  • Spondylolisthesis
    This condition occurs when one vertebra slips over the one beneath it. It often results from a defect or fracture in the pars interarticularis, which is the part of the vertebra located between the upper and lower facet joints, leading to spinal instability, pain, and possible nerve or spinal cord compression.


The symptoms of degenerative spinal conditions vary based on the specific condition and its severity but generally include a range of discomforts related to the spine. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain
    Often the most noticeable symptom, pain can be localised in the neck or back, or may radiate to other areas such as the arms and legs, depending on the nerves affected.
  • Stiffness
    Reduced flexibility and stiffness, particularly noticeable in the morning or after periods of inactivity, are common.
  • Numbness or Tingling
    Compression or irritation of spinal nerves can cause numbness, tingling, or a “pins-and-needles” sensation, often in the arms or legs.
  • Weakness
    Muscle weakness in the extremities can occur if nerve compression affects the muscles’ strength and functionality.
  • Limited Range of Motion
    Difficulty bending, twisting, or performing certain movements can indicate degenerative changes in the spine.
  • Balance and Coordination Issues
    In severe cases, nerve compression can affect balance and coordination, leading to difficulty in walking or performing fine motor tasks.


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Diagnosing degenerative spinal conditions involves a comprehensive evaluation to determine the specific type and extent of the degeneration. The diagnostic process typically includes:

Medical History

Gathering detailed information about symptoms, their onset, and any factors that worsen or improve them.

Physical Examination

Assessing the spine’s range of motion, nerve function, muscle strength, and identifying areas of pain and tenderness.

Imaging Tests
  • X-rays: Useful for revealing bone changes, such as spinal alignment issues, bone spurs, or decreased disc space.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Provides detailed images of soft tissues, including discs and nerves, to detect herniated discs, nerve compression, and other abnormalities.
  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: Often used when MRI is not available or in cases where bone detail is particularly crucial.
Nerve Tests
  • Electromyography (EMG): Measures the electrical activity of muscles to detect nerve or muscle damage.
  • Nerve Conduction Studies: Assess the speed and strength of nerve signals to pinpoint specific areas of nerve impairment.

Non-Surgical Treatment Options

Non-surgical treatments are often the first line of approach in managing degenerative spinal conditions, especially when symptoms are mild to moderate. Common non-surgical options include:

Physical Therapy: Tailored exercises and stretching can strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, improve flexibility, and reduce pain.

Pain Management:

  • Medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, and muscle relaxants can be used to manage pain and inflammation.
  • Epidural Steroid Injections: Corticosteroid injections near the affected nerve can reduce inflammation and pain.

Lifestyle Modifications: Weight management, quitting smoking, and adopting a spine-healthy diet can significantly manage symptoms.

Heat and Cold Therapy: Applying heat or cold packs can provide temporary pain relief and reduce muscle tension.

Surgical Treatment Options

Surgical intervention for degenerative spinal conditions is generally considered when non-surgical treatments fail to provide adequate relief, or when the condition is causing significant neurological symptoms, such as severe pain, weakness, or numbness. Surgical options vary depending on the specific condition and its severity, and they include:

  • Spinal Fusion
    The most common surgical procedure for spinal degeneration, this procedure fuses two or more vertebrae to eliminate painful motion and stabilise the spine.
  • Laminectomy
    This procedure involves removing the lamina (part of the vertebrae) to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves, often used in cases of spinal stenosis.
  • Discectomy
    The removal of a portion of a herniated disc to relieve pressure on spinal nerves.
  • Foraminotomy
    Enlarging the neural foramen (the opening where nerve roots exit the spine) to relieve pressure on nerves.
  • Artificial Disc Replacement
    In select cases, a damaged disc may be replaced with an artificial one, preserving more movement than fusion.
  • Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery
    Techniques that use smaller incisions and aim to reduce recovery time and risks associated with traditional spine surgery.

Dr. Kau Chung Yuan

MBBS (S’pore)

MRCS (Ireland)

MMed (Ortho)

FRCSEd (Ortho)

Dr Kau (许医生) is a Fellowship trained Orthopaedic Surgeon with a subspecialty interest in Hip and Knee surgery and has been in practice for more than 15 years.

He is experienced in trauma and fracture management, sports injuries, and joint replacement surgery.

  • Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh, Orthopaedics (FRCS, Edin) 2014
  • Master of Medicine (Orthopaedics), Singapore (MMed) 2013
  • Member of the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (MRCS, Ire) 2009
  • Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBS, Singapore) 2004

Prevention Strategies

While not all degenerative conditions of the spine can be completely prevented, certain strategies can help reduce the risk and slow the progression of spinal degeneration. These include:

  • Maintaining a Healthy Weight: Excess body weight puts additional strain on the spine, accelerating degenerative changes.
  • Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity strengthens the muscles supporting the spine and improves flexibility and posture.
  • Proper Posture: Maintaining good posture, especially while sitting for prolonged periods, helps reduce undue stress on the spine.
  • Ergonomic Work Environment: Setting up a workspace that supports spinal health, such as using chairs with proper back support and positioning computer screens at eye level, can be beneficial.
  • Avoiding Smoking: Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of spinal degeneration due to its impact on blood flow and nutrient delivery to spinal tissues.
  • Balanced Diet: A diet rich in calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus supports bone health and can help in preventing osteoporosis, a risk factor for spinal degeneration.
  • Regular Check-ups: Regular medical check-ups can help in the early identification and management of conditions that might contribute to spinal degeneration.

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Patient Feedback

Ethan Chan
Dr. Kau is an exemplary doctor who is experienced in his field and is very patient with his patients. He walked me through the details of my knee condition and addressed all my concerns. Thanks to Dr. Kau, I had a better understanding of my ACL and MCL injury and the various treatment options available. His advice and treatment have been very valuable to me.
Ming Lee Chua
Dr Kau was very careful and explained clearly the surgery procedures. After surgery, the care while I was in hospital was closely monitored and he even came during weekends! The hip so far has recovered and healed. His ‘predictions’ of when what can happen are so accurate. Trust him.
Teo Pek Suan Diana
I had a very successful total hip replacement done by Dr Kau 4 years ago. 4 months after the operation I was back walking, cycling and swimming. The beautiful job gave me much confidence Dr Kau is most professional and has such great doctor patient communication.

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    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    Can Degenerative Spinal Conditions Be Cured?

    While there is currently no cure for degenerative spinal conditions, treatments can effectively manage symptoms and improve quality of life. Management strategies focus on pain relief, maintaining mobility, and preventing further degeneration through a combination of medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle modifications.

    Can Exercise Worsen Degenerative Spinal Conditions?

    Certain exercises, particularly high-impact activities or those that strain the spine, can exacerbate spinal conditions. Conversely, low-impact exercises such as swimming, walking, and specific strengthening and stretching routines, when tailored to the individual’s condition and overseen by orthopaedic surgeons, can bolster spinal support, enhance flexibility, and alleviate pain.

    How Long Is the Recovery After Spinal Surgery?

    Recovery time after spinal surgery varies significantly, depending on the type of surgery, the patient’s health, and the complexity of the procedure. Generally, minor surgeries may require several weeks of recovery, while more extensive procedures might require several months, along with physical therapy for optimal recovery.

    Can Degenerative Spinal Conditions Lead to Paralysis?

    Although rare, severe and untreated degenerative spinal conditions can progress to cause significant nerve damage, which in extreme cases may lead to paralysis. Timely and effective treatment, regular monitoring, and appropriate lifestyle adjustments can significantly reduce the risk of such severe complications.