A basic overview of degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a term describing the effects of the natural age-related breakdown of the spinal discs. Everyone’s spinal discs break down with age, just not necessarily at the same rate. This means the onset and severity of symptoms related to disc degeneration varies. Treatment of DDD can take a variety of forms, depending on the location and severity of the degeneration in the spine.

What is disc degeneration?

Degenerative disc disease is an umbrella term that can lead to a range of more specific spine conditions. When trying to grasp the scope of DDD, it helps to understand spinal anatomy. Our discs are natural shock absorbers for the spinal column, cushioning the vertebrae so they can bend and flex. To do this, discs have two main parts: a tough outer layer and a softer core.

As the spinal column moves and continually supports the weight of the body, the core squeezes outward against the outer layer of the disc. The elasticity of the wall pushes the gelatinous core back into position, reestablishing the height and shape of the disc. With age, the discs lose water and protein content, making them dry out and become less elastic. This makes the discs less able to withstand the repeated loading placed on them due to daily activity and can lead to the development of small tears in the outer layer.

Natural breakdown of the discs happens to nearly everyone but it doesn’t always cause symptoms. However, DDD is related to the following potentially painful conditions:

  • Spinal stenosis. This is a general narrowing of the spinal column, which can be caused by a range of factors, including displaced disc material.
  • Herniated disc. The outer wall of a degenerative disc has torn, which can push inner disc material into the spinal column.
  • Bulging disc. The outer wall of a degenerative disc has weakened, allowing the disc to push beyond its normal perimeter.
  • Collapsed disc. This occurs when a damaged disc loses height, allowing adjacent vertebrae to rub together and possibly pinch nerve roots.

Treating the symptoms of degenerative disc disease

For all of these degenerative spine conditions, some of the worst symptoms arise when the nerves in the spinal column become pinched or compressed. Nerve compression causes the common symptoms of numbness, tingling, pain and weakness, both locally and in the extremities. Doctors typically begin treatment of DDD with conservative options like pain medication, physical therapy, and steroid injections, among other nonsurgical methods.

If conservative treatment fails, spinal surgery may be recommended to decompress affected nerves and relieve symptoms. If you have been recommended for surgery to treat your DDD, you should search for a surgical option that is effective while also subjecting you to the least risk and the least disruption of surrounding tissue possible.

The minimally invasive outpatient spine surgery performed by the skilled surgeons at Laser Spine Institute is often the clinically appropriate first choice for addressing degenerative spine conditions compared to traditional open spine surgery.^

Contact us today to learn more and for a no-cost review of your MRI or CT scan* to determine if you are a potential candidate for one of our procedures.