By: Robert Shepherd MS, Certified Medical Illustrator, President & CEO, MediVisuals Inc.®
Individuals who develop new or suddenly worsening symptoms consistent with nerve root or spinal cord impingement following a traumatic event are sometimes diagnosed with “disc-osteophyte complexes”. The term “disc-osteophyte complex” generally refers to abnormal extension of intervertebral disc material that accompanies immediately adjacent osteophyte formation at the vertebral body margin (see the below figure). It is important to note (as shown in the illustrations) that the disc almost always extends further than the osteophytes into the neural foramen or spinal canal to irritate or impinge upon nerve roots or the spinal cord.
Occasionally, individuals who are evaluated shortly after a traumatic event are found to have disc-osteophyte complexes. Because a minimum of several weeks is required for osteophytes to form as a result of a traumatic event, defendant insurance companies may argue that the presence of osteophytes so soon after the traumatic event in question may prove that the plaintiff’s injuries preexisted the traumatic event. Since it is the disc pathology extending beyond the osteophytes that is the actual cause of the nerve root or spinal cord irritation and inflammation, the defense’s arguments are not valid. As shown in the illustrations below, the sequence of events that typically takes place in these cases is that the plaintiff had minimally symptomatic or asymptomatic disc osteophytes prior to the traumatic event in question. During the traumatic event, the disc sustains trauma that results in worsening of the disc pathology while the osteophyte portion of the osteophyte/disc complex remains essentially unchanged. This worsening of the disc pathology in turn results in new or increased irritation or impingement of the neural elements.