Degenerative Disc Disease – Plain Talk From the Experts at Laser Spine Institute
Degenerative disc disease is a common condition that develops gradually as a result of the natural aging process. With daily activity, the spine endures a lot of stress and the effects of that stress can build up over time, taking a toll on the spine in the form of degenerated discs. This does not always result in symptoms and can go unnoticed for years.
The spinal discs are flexible pads that separate the vertebrae. Each disc has a tough outer shell and a soft inner core. This highly elastic structure allows a healthy disc to flex and absorb shock as the vertebrae move and the spine bears the body’s weight. When damaged by degenerative disc disease, a disc can lose some of its essential water content. As a result, the disc can become drier, thinner and less effective as a cushion for the spine.
Why do symptoms develop?
As degenerative disc disease causes the spinal discs to slowly shrink, the vertebrae will have less padding between them and the spine can begin to lose both height and stability. To help strengthen the spine, the body may form bony deposits (bone spurs) on the vertebrae in the areas of weakness. Contrary to what their name suggests, bone spurs are smooth, bony deposits, and their formation is not necessarily a problem. Rather, this is simply the body’s natural healing response to weakened bones.
That said, bone spurs and settling vertebrae can sometimes take up valuable space within the spinal canal, which houses the spinal cord and a series of spinal nerve roots. When this occurs, the spinal canal becomes narrower (a condition known as spinal stenosis that can be caused by degenerative disc disease). Some people never experience pain or other symptoms of these conditions, but if sensitive nerve tissue becomes overcrowded and pressured as a result, the affected nerve may begin to send pain signals throughout the body.
Additionally, a disc that is affected by degenerative disc disease can sometimes bulge outward past its normal boundary and encroach on the spinal canal. Or, the outer shell of a disc can tear or break open (herniate), allowing some of its inner, gel-like material to escape. Similar to bone spurs, bulging or herniated discs can take up space within the spinal canal and possibly create pressure on nerve tissue. When this happens, the most common symptom is back pain that travels through the buttocks and down one leg (sciatica).
What to do
While just about everyone experiences minor back pain on occasion, it’s important to see a physician if sciatica occurs, the discomfort doesn’t go away within a few weeks or the symptoms begin to interfere with daily activities. A physician can pinpoint the underlying cause of the problem by evaluating the nature of the discomfort, performing a physical examination and possibly ordering some imaging tests.
If a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease is confirmed, treatment may involve:
- Activity modification. A patient can be instructed on how to move and position his or her body to help keep symptoms at bay.
- Exercise and strength training. Strong core abdominal and back muscles can help support the spine and reduce the pressure on damaged discs.
- Medications. As necessary, a patient may be advised to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation and pain relievers to increase comfort.
- A back brace. Bracing can help support and stabilize a weakened spine.
Even though it might be tempting to try one or more of these options (or other home remedies) without first consulting with a physician, the importance of a proper, professional diagnosis cannot be overstated. That’s because the symptoms of degenerative disc disease can also be the result of other medical conditions, some of which — such as fractures, tumors and spinal infections — can be very serious if left untreated.
Is surgery inevitable?
For the majority of patients, the answer is no. Surgery is rarely necessary for treating degenerative disc disease. As an exception to this general rule, a patient may be advised to consider surgical treatment for severe discomfort that lasts for more than a few months and doesn’t respond sufficiently to nonsurgical treatments. Surgery may also be appropriate for addressing pain, numbness or weakness in the legs that interferes with daily activities, such as walking and standing.
Many patients who are considering surgery for degenerative disc disease turn to Laser Spine Institute. Our minimally invasive spine surgery is an alternative to traditional open spine surgery because we use muscle-sparing techniques that allow for an outpatient procedure. Our dedication to minimally invasive procedures has made Laser Spine Institute a leading spine surgery provider.^ This advantage grows every week, leading to a higher level of expertise, as Laser Spine Institute helps thousands of patients get their lives back.
If you’d like to learn more about minimally invasive options for treating degenerative disc disease, contact Laser Spine Institute today. We offer a no-cost MRI review* that can help you determine if you are a potential candidate for one of our procedures.