What are the symptoms and causes of degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a common condition that many people will experience at some point in their adulthood. Even though the diagnosis contains the word disease, DDD is actually more of a condition, characterized by the aging of one or more spinal discs which can cause neck or back pain. These sponge-like discs are found in between the vertebrae of the spinal column, and are in close proximity to the spinal cord and its nerve roots. A damaged disc is in a prime location to press on these major nerve structures, causing symptoms that travel the entire length of a compressed nerve.

Degenerative disc disease symptoms

Depending on where along the spine that damaged discs are found, symptoms can vary widely amongst individuals with DDD. Some symptoms which are commonly experienced include:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Weakness in the arms or legs
  • Traveling pain down one or more extremities, such as from the leg to the foot to the toes
  • Sensations of tingling or numbness
  • Shooting pain in the hips or buttocks
  • Foot drop

Of course, in addition to pain in the extremities, pain can also occur at the site of the damaged discs. Because symptoms can vary so widely and may coincide with other medical conditions, it is important to be diagnosed by a medical professional to determine if their true cause is degenerative disc disease.

Degenerative disc disease causes

Besides the natural aging process contributing to DDD, it can be difficult to determine the cause of a person’s disc degeneration. DDD generally follows a progression of a disc gradually becoming more dehydrated and weak, and then experiencing microtrauma. Eventually repeated microtrauma causes more severe damage to the outer wall of a spinal disc, compromising its shape and function even further. The wall may tear and allow the inner contents of disc to escape, or the disc may collapse. All of these stages can be considered degenerative disc disease. Factors that may contribute to the occurrence of these events include:

  • Excess body weight, especially in the abdominal area
  • Neck and back injuries, such as from sports or accidents
  • Repetitive motions that place strain on the spine, such as heavy lifting, twisting or even prolonged sitting
  • Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption

Degenerative disc disease treatment

Some individuals find relief from the symptoms of DDD by treating it with conservative methods, such as over-the-counter or prescription pain medication, physical therapy, stretching and epidural steroid injections. Others have success with alternative forms of medicine, such as acupuncture, yoga and chiropractic treatment. Yet there are some individuals for whom none of these approaches work, even after months or years. In these cases, surgery may be the best option. Traditional surgery usually involves the removal of at least one of the damaged discs and either the fusing of the two surrounding vertebrae, or the implantation of an artificial disc. While open back surgery can be effective, it usually requires a long period of recovery.

Laser Spine Institute offers an alternative to traditional open neck and back surgery. Our minimally invasive, outpatient surgical procedures have a shorter recovery time ^ and offer a lower risk of complication compared to traditional open spine surgery. To find out if you’re a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures, contact Laser Spine Institute today.