Degenerative Disc Disease is a highly common condition that involves the breakdown of soft discs situated between your vertebrae. These discs are sac-like, containing a gel fluid that cushions vertebrae so they move smoothly past each other. As you age, your discs become weaker and less able to repair themselves after damage. As a result, they begin to shrink and dehydrate, a condition known as degenerative disc disease though it is not truly a disease. Degenerative disc disease usually develops from multiple causes that arise in elderly patients. If left untreated, the lack of cushion in your spine will lead to an onset of numerous other problems. Since degenerative disc disease can develop without symptoms, it is important to begin treatment as soon as pain does begin.

CAUSES OF DEGENERATIVE DISC DISEASE

Aging is the primary cause of degenerative disc disease. As we get older, our cells become dehydrated, making the membrane of the disc susceptible to tears and damage. As the cells dehydrate and shrink, the space between vertebrae narrows, putting more pressure on the discs which can cause further damage.

Arthritis and osteoarthritis can also contribute to degenerative disc disease. These are also degenerative conditions of joints, which can cause the facet joint of the vertebrae to grind the discs, damaging and irritating them.

If you have degenerative disc disease but do not feel any pain, that would normally not be a problem. But, it may start after injury or trauma. An injury itself may spur degenerative disc disease if discs are damaged and are unable to sufficiently heal themselves.

SYMPTOMS

Although degenerative disc disease is common, many people do not feel pain. On the contrary, degenerative disc disease can offset many other issues, causing pain so severe for some that it interrupts daily activity. Some symptoms that may occur include:

  • Mild to severe neck and back pain
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities if nerves are compressed
  • Muscle spasms
  • Increased pain upon sitting, when your spine stacks the most pressure onto the disc
  • Aggravation upon bending or twisting

DIAGNOSIS

Your back or neck doctor will be able to determine if you have degenerative disc disease after performing a few tests. You will first be asked about your medical history, lifestyle habits, past injuries, and type of pain. Then your neck or back doctor will then perform a physical examination to determine if you have any muscle weakness or numbness.

Usually, an MRI is sufficient to determine if there are any other causes of compression on spinal nerves and to see how much space is left between your vertebrae.

A CT scan, myelogram, or discogram may also be needed to make a definite diagnosis.

TREATMENT

CONSERVATIVE

Your back or neck doctor may simply teach you proper posture or activities to avoid further damage if your degenerative disc disease is mild and doesn’t affect your daily life. Other conservative treatments help most cases of degenerative disc disease.

  • Physical Therapy – Following a physical therapy routine will help manage pain from degenerative disc disease. A physical therapist will help stretch muscles of the back and neck to keep them from compressing your spine further. Once flexibility is regained, you may begin exercises to strengthen muscles that support the spine. This will take pressure off of the joints and increase space between them, which will limit inflammation and damage to the bones and attached tissues.
  • Medication – Your back or neck doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications. This will help reduce pain enough to complete a physical therapy routine, rehabilitating your spine in the long term.

SURGICAL

Surgery is only an option if your degenerative disc disease leads to more severe conditions, like spinal instability. If conservative treatments fail, spinal surgery could help severely debilitated patients resume daily life without pain.

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