Understanding Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease is a common spinal condition that can lead to chronic back and neck pain. This article will explore degenerative disc disease and help you understand what causes it and how it can be treated.


Overview of degenerative disc disease

In between each vertebrae of the spine is a disc of cartilage that helps absorb the shock of the body’s movement and cushions the vertebrae. Spinal discs are composed of a thick outer layer of cartilage with a softer cartilage center. They allow the back to be flexible and move normally.

Over time, these discs can begin to show signs of wear-and-tear. It is normal for spinal discs to degenerate over time, but some people begin to experience painful symptoms that can interfere with quality of life. Once those symptoms develop, the condition is typically considered degenerative disc disease.

There are a few ways discs can transform with age. The discs can begin to dry out, which means that the water that normally keeps them round and soft is lost over time. The discs then start to flatten and lose their ability to absorb shock.

Sometimes, the outer ring of cartilage in a spinal disc can start to crack from stress and degeneration. The soft inner cartilage of the disc can then start to poke or bulge out of the disc, often leading to irritation of surrounding nerves.

With treatment, the symptoms of degenerative disc disease can start to fade but may return later as the discs continue to degenerate over time.


Causes of degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease typically arises from wear-and-tear on the spinal discs over time. As we age, our spinal discs will start to show signs of wear-and-tear, and for some people, this degeneration can result in pain and inflammation. If the disc begins to irritate nearby nerves or involves inflammation or spasms of surrounding muscle, it will often lead to chronic back pain.

Over time, discs can start to lose their flexibility, which means they are more susceptible to cracks and tears that can produce painful inflammation in the spine. They also become less able to absorb the shock of the body’s movement, which can lead to back pain.

If spinal discs have already begun to weaken, painful symptoms can develop suddenly if you, for example, twist abruptly or sit with improper posture for too long. Strenuous activities like lifting or yard work can also cause a previously harmless spinal disc to start irritating nearby nerves.

If the spine’s discs are not properly supporting the spine, the surrounding muscles will also work to provide necessary stability to the spine. This unnatural effort of the muscles can lead to painful muscle spasms and tension.


Symptoms of degenerative disc disease

The hallmark symptom of degenerative disc disease is chronic back pain. This pain may flare up during strenuous activity that puts additional pressure on the spine. It can also begin to radiate downward into other areas of the body if a nerve has been irritated in the spine. The pain can range from mild to severe and may come and go over time.

Other symptoms can include a feeling of general instability in the spine that can make it challenging to move and tension or spasms in the muscles that surround the spine.


Treatment for degenerative disc disease

Conservative treatments can typically improve symptoms of degenerative disc disease. These treatments can include

  •       Over-the-counter or prescription pain medications can help relieve pain and inflammation caused by a degenerated disc
  •       Applying heat to relax back muscles and ice to reduce inflammation
  •       Physical therapy exercises that strengthen the back and offer improved stability to the spine
  •       Epidural steroid injections that inject corticosteroids into the epidural space of the spine can also help relieve pain and inflammation

These treatments can help many find relief from painful symptoms of degenerative disc disease. In some cases, however, surgery may be necessary to relieve symptoms.

The two most common surgical treatments for degenerative disc disease include

  •       Spinal fusion: In this procedure, the degenerated disc is removed, and the two remaining spinal vertebrae are fused together with a bone graft to provide more spinal stability and to minimize irritation of surrounding nerves.
  •       Artificial Disc Replacement: This procedure involves removing the degenerated disc and replacing it with an artificial one that can better cushion the vertebrae and offer stability in the spine.

An orthopaedic specialist will work with you to develop a course of treatment depending on your individual case.


Treating degenerative disc disease with OAR

Degenerative disc disease can be painful and unpredictable. At OAR, our experienced team of orthopaedic specialists and surgeons are prepared with some of the most innovative treatments to help you get some relief from chronic back pain.

Only a doctor can tell you if you have this ailment. This is for informational purposes and should not be used in lieu of a doctor’s opinion.

Contact us today!