Understanding degenerative disc disease

Understanding 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.

What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is, quite simply, the normal aging of the spine that occurs over time. While everyone’s spine ages at a different rate, the slow decline of the spinal column can cause back pain and other discomfort.

To understand what degenerative disc disease is, it helps to know more about the anatomy of the spine, particularly the spine’s discs. The cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spine are composed of a gel-like center (called the nucleus pulposus) and tough outer wall (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 on the discs, they are susceptible to wear, 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 responsibilities.

As the discs wear down, they shrink, resulting in a reduction of 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 this condition. As you research the types of surgery available for degenerative disc disease, we encourage you to contact Laser Spine Institute with any questions or concerns regarding your condition and our procedures. We are here to help guide you through your journey to wellness.

How does degenerative disc disease progress?

Degeneration of a disc can cause local pain in the affected area and makes the disc more susceptible to herniation. In addition, as the discs deteriorate, they are not able to support the vertebrae, causing them to move closer together. The reduction in the spaces between the vertebrae can put pressure on the nerve roots inside these spaces. Therefore, while degenerative disc disease can begin with local pain within a damaged disc itself, over time it can progress to radiating pain, muscle weakness, tingling and numbness along the path of the nerve roots emerging from the spinal cord.

Common symptoms of degenerative disc disease

The symptoms of degenerative disc disease can vary depending on the location in the spine where the degeneration is occurring. The three segments of the spine where degenerative disc disease can occur are the cervical spine (upper neck area), thoracic spine (middle back) and lumbar spine (lower back).

Symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease

Spinal degeneration at the cervical level (the seven vertebrae from the base of the skull to the shoulders) is referred to as cervical degenerative 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 or herniate, the reduced space between the vertebrae can lead to the compression of nerve roots that reside there.

These nerve roots branch out to serve 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 impacted by an affected root. Therefore, deterioration of cervical discs can also lead to symptoms in the following places:

  • Shoulders
  • The backs of the arms (triceps)
  • Forearms
  • Wrists
  • Fingers

Symptoms of thoracic degenerative disc disease

Thoracic spinal deterioration refers to degenerative disc disease that affects the middle of the back, more specifically, the 12 vertebrae 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 well as other symptoms affecting areas including the:

  • Inner arms
  • Abdomen
  • Chest

Symptoms of lumbar degenerative disc disease

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 on the discs.

As these elements break down, the symptoms may manifest in the lower back as pain, but if the damaged discs interfere with neighboring nerve roots, symptoms can spread. Affected people may feel pain, weakness, numbness and other discomfort in the following areas:

  • Buttocks
  • Legs
  • Feet

These symptoms may occur on both sides of the body, but they typically happen unilaterally, affecting only one hip, leg or foot.

Causes of degenerative disc disease

The main cause of degenerative disc disease is the normal aging process. Just like other areas of the body, the spine weakens and deteriorates with age, and the spinal discs are no exception. However, there are factors that can cause some people’s spines to degenerate earlier in life than others. For example, genetics may play a role in degenerative disc disease, which means people can inherit the tendency to develop DDD at a younger age or suffer more severe symptoms. Lifestyle can also affect whether a person acquires degenerative disc disease — for instance, smoking and being overweight can adversely affect the discs and cause them to break down faster.

Conservative treatments for degenerative disc disease

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 doctor 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, doctors 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 doctor 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 and take pressure off the discs. However, be sure to discuss any planned exercise regimen with your doctor 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 doctor 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 and the wellbeing of your spine. Losing excess weight can decrease the strain on your 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 alleviate pain and keep the spine flexible. Acupuncture enthusiasts say that the practice, which involves the careful placement of hollow needles at specific areas of 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.

Surgical degenerative disc disease treatments

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 and ask for a free MRI review* to find out if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive spine surgery. Our muscle-sparing procedures have helped more than 75,000 patients find relief from chronic neck and back pain.