Understanding degenerative disc disease (a type of spondylosis)
What is degenerative disc disease?
Being diagnosed with degenerative disc disease can sound alarming. However, it is a common condition that affects most adults older than the age of 50. Simply, degenerative disc disease (DDD) is characterized by the ongoing deterioration of the discs of the spine, often due to genetic factors, age and lifestyle changes. Degenerative disc disease is often referred to as spondylosis, which is an umbrella term for age-related spinal degeneration. If you’ve been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, take a moment to research what causes this condition and the treatment options available to you, so you can take a step toward pain relief.
The cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spine are composed of a gelatinous core (called the nucleus pulposus) and exterior cartilage shell (called the annulus fibrosus). As people age, the cartilage in these discs weakens and their water and protein content slowly decreases. With all the pressure placed upon the discs, they are susceptible to wear and tear — and the potential for damage only increases over time. The two most common areas of the spine to see disc degeneration are the neck (cervical degenerative disc disease) and the lower back (lumbar degenerative disc disease) due to their constant range of motion and weight-bearing properties.
As the discs wear down, they shrink, resulting in a reduction in the normal space between vertebrae. The smaller disc space can be visualized through X-ray imaging or MRI scans, allowing for an accurate diagnosis of the condition commonly called degenerative disc disease.
When degenerative disc disease progresses
Degeneration of disc tissue makes a disc more susceptible to herniation and can cause local pain in the affected area. Disc degeneration can occur at the cervical, thoracic and lumbar levels of the spine, possibly causing pain within the damaged disc itself and radiating pain along the nerves emerging from the spinal canal.
Spinal degeneration at the cervical level is referred to as cervical disc disease. It can cause symptoms at the site of deterioration; for instance, people with the condition may develop a stiff neck. However, as the discs in the spine shrink, the reduced space between the vertebrae can lead to the impingement of nerve roots that reside within those spaces. These nerve roots branch out to other areas of the body, so when they are “pinched,” they may register the sensation of pain, as well as muscle weakness, tingling and numbness in the areas innervated by an affected root. Therefore, deterioration of cervical discs can also lead to symptoms in the following places:
- The backs of the arms (triceps)
Thoracic spinal deterioration refers to degenerative disc disease that affects the middle of the back between the shoulders and the small of the back. Degeneration in this section of the spine is relatively uncommon. However, when it does occur, the shrinking discs can lead to pain and discomfort at the site of the deterioration as other symptoms affecting areas including:
- The abdomen
- The chest
- Lower extremities
Lumbar spinal deterioration is the term used to identify the breakdown of spinal components in the lower back. Due to the forces regularly applied to this area of the spine while performing routine activities like sitting and walking, the lumbar region of the spine is often the site of severe wear and tear on the discs and the cartilage lining of the facet joints. As these elements break down, the symptoms may manifest in the lower back as pain, but if these damaged structures or associated bone spurs interfere with neighboring nerve roots, symptoms can spread. Affected people may feel pain, weakness, numbness or discomfort in the following areas:
These symptoms may occur on both sides of the body, but they typically happen unilaterally, affecting only one hip, leg or foot.
Your next steps…
If you are concerned that you are showing signs of degenerative disc disease and would like to investigate your suspicions, the first step is to consult with your physician to receive an accurate diagnosis. A degenerative disc disease diagnosis is generally made only after a thorough physical examination and necessary imaging tests. By using X-rays, CT and/or MRI scans, physicians can rule out fractures and see the extent of the damage to the spinal components. If a degenerative disc disease diagnosis is made, you will likely be advised to begin addressing your symptoms with conservative, nonsurgical approaches.
Commonly recommended conservative treatments include:
- Rest — Limiting the movement of the affected portions of the spine can provide some temporary relief from pain and discomfort, but bed rest is not recommended for longer periods of time. In severe cases, a physician may recommend that you spend a few days resting in bed, but generally, gentle activity will be more beneficial in the long run.
- Exercises — Staying active, even while coping with the symptoms of degenerative disc disease, can reduce stiffness in the spine and weakness in the muscles surrounding it. Plus, strengthening the neck, back and core muscles helps them to better support the spine. However, be sure to discuss any planned exercise regimen with your physician in advance.
- Physical therapy — A physical therapist will use exercises and other techniques to target the affected area of your spine, strengthening the neck or back and improving your range of motion.
- Medications — Prescription and over-the-counter pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs may help you manage the symptoms of degenerative disc disease. Your physician can advise you about your options, depending on the severity of your discomfort.
- Lifestyle modifications — Quitting smoking, restricting alcohol consumption and eating a nutritious diet can improve your overall health as well as the well-being of the spine. Losing excess weight can decrease the strain on the spine, especially if the lumbar spine is the site of the pain.
You may also find it helpful to complement conservative treatments with alternative treatment methods. Although such techniques aren’t as commonly accepted as the aforementioned treatments, some patients find them helpful. For example, gentle yoga stretches can quell pain and keep the spine flexible. Acupuncture enthusiasts say that the practice, which involves the careful placement of hollow needles at specific areas on the body, can address some of the localized and radiating symptoms of degenerative disc disease. Some people with DDD also find it useful to see a chiropractor for spinal manipulation treatments that aim to properly realign the spine. It should be noted that when chiropractic therapy is effective, the benefits are temporary.
One of the best ways to limit the severity of DDD is by gaining knowledge of how it develops. With this knowledge, useful predictions can be made concerning activities that accelerate or slow the progression of degenerative disc disease. We suggest you take a few moments to review our page dedicated to the causes of degenerative disc disease. If you have been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and are interested in minimally invasive surgical procedures to treat your symptoms, contact Laser Spine Institute today.