What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is not really a “disease,” but a condition that develops naturally with age. It occurs when wear and tear on one or more spinal discs causes back or neck pain and symptoms. Almost every adult experiences some kind of disc degeneration with age, but not everyone develops pain, weakness, instability and other symptoms.

In youth, spinal discs provide cushioning, support and shock absorption to the vertebrae. They help evenly distribute weight across the spine during movement. Additionally, intervertebral discs are flexible and enable the spine to twist and bend freely. With age, wear and tear, spinal discs become worn down, drier, less flexible and weaker. They’re more vulnerable to tears and damage, and they can’t support the vertebrae as well as they once could. Some discs begin to thin out, flatten or collapse, narrowing the space between vertebrae. These degenerative changes can affect the surrounding muscles, joints, soft tissues and nerves and cause low back or neck pain and symptoms.

Degenerative disc changes also contribute to the development of other degenerative conditions in the spine, including arthritis, disc herniation and spinal stenosis.      

Causes and Risk Factors

Degenerative disc disease is a condition that develops naturally with age. Although nearly every adult experiences some form of spinal disc degeneration, it’s impossible to predict who will develop pain and symptoms. Daily stresses over several years, past back injuries, physically demanding jobs with repetitive lifting or bending, sports and obesity can all cause discs to dry out, tear and degenerate. 

Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

The primary symptoms of degenerative disc disease are back or neck pain, depending on the location of the affected disc. Many people experience pain that comes and goes, and sometimes flares up into more intense episodes of pain. Flare ups can last anywhere from a few days to a few months and may come on without warning. Some people experience continuous chronic pain with episodic flare-ups. The pain level varies by person, ranging from mild and uncomfortable to severe and debilitating. 

Disc degeneration also causes spinal instability, which may lead to weakness, muscle spasms and a feeling like the back is “giving out” at times. If damaged discs press against nearby spinal nerves, you may experience radiating pain, weakness, numbness or tingling. A damaged disc in the low back can cause symptoms that radiate to the hip, buttock, leg and foot. A damaged disc in the neck can cause symptoms that radiate to the shoulder, arm and hand.

Pain and symptoms typically feel worse after sitting or standing for long periods or performing movements like bending, twisting or lifting, because these positions place increased stress on the spinal discs. Walking, stretching regularly, lying down and changing position frequently often helps relieve pain and symptoms.      

Treatment and Prevention

Spinal degeneration can’t be reversed once it’s occurred. Your doctor will place you on a management plan to reduce pain and flare ups, slow the progression of damage, and keep you as active and mobile as possible. Your treatment plan might include:

  • Medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers (acetaminophen) and anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen) can help relieve mild to moderate pain. If you’re experiencing a flare up with significant pain, your doctor may prescribe a stronger pain medication or muscle relaxants. 
  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist will work with you to strengthen the muscles and joints that support your spine and improve flexibility, range of motion, balance and endurance. Your therapist can also help you find stretches that relieve muscle tension and pressure in the back and neck. 
  • Injections. A corticosteroid injection can temporarily reduce pain and inflammation. While an injection only provides short-term relief, it allows you time to work on your mobility and strength. 
  • Lifestyle modifications. Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly are two of the most important things you can do to maintain your strength and mobility. You may need to modify some of your activities by switching to low-impact exercises that place less stress on the spine, like walking, swimming, water aerobics, using an elliptical and yoga.  

In many cases, a combination of the treatments listed above can provide long-term relief. However, if pain and symptoms from degenerative disc disease are affecting your quality of life, you may need surgery. 

Surgical Options for Degenerative Discs

Surgery may be an option if severe pain is impacting your ability to function and perform daily activities, even after non-surgical treatments. The two most common surgical procedures for degenerative disc disease are:

  • Spinal fusion. During a fusion, the damaged disc is removed and the adjacent vertebrae are fused. A fusion eliminates spinal instability that causes pain, inflammation and muscle spasms. 
  • Disc replacement surgery. During a disc replacement procedure, the damaged disc is removed and replaced with an artificial implant. An artificial disc restores normal mobility and range of motion in the spine.

Based on your specific condition, your doctor will discuss your surgical options with you.  

Contact Integrity Spine and Orthopedics to Learn More About the Conditions We Treat

At Integrity Spine and Orthopedics, we specialize in identifying, diagnosing and treating a wide range of acute and chronic back, spine and joint conditions. Our board-certified orthopedic surgeons specialize in performing minimally invasive spine surgeries to reduce pain and improve mobility for patients diagnosed with spinal arthritis, degenerative disc disease, bulging or herniated discs, a pinched nerve, spinal stenosis and more. 

Some of the primary benefits of minimally invasive surgery include:

  • Smaller incisions
  • Fewer complications and bloss loss during surgery
  • Less damage to surrounding muscle and soft tissues
  • Lower risk of infection
  • Less post-op pain and less reliance on strong pain medications during recovery
  • Faster recovery and rehabilitation
  • Better cosmetic results with minimal scarring 

If you’re experiencing back or joint pain, weakness, or a loss of mobility, reach out to us today to schedule a consultation with our team. We provide compassionate and comprehensive care to help you find relief from pain and get back to doing the activities you love. 

Call us at 904-456-0017 or contact us online to request an appointment.

 

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