What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Also known as DDD, degenerative disc disease is actually not a disease, it is a condition. The spine is made up of the spinal cord, vertebrae, and discs. The discs cushion the spinal cord and keep the vertebrae from rubbing together and getting damaged. Over time, these discs start to deteriorate, which can cause pain and other symptoms. Degenerative disc disease can happen on its own, or in conjunction with other issues.
What causes Degenerative Disc Disease?
The main cause of disc degeneration is age. As the body ages, the discs in the spine are compressed and the amount of fluid in them is decreased. Because of this, the discs shrink, which creates stress on the spine and can sometimes cause more issues with the vertebrae. This in turn can cause inflammation and nerve damage. Many times, this degeneration can cause bone spurs, which are growths on the vertebrae that may need surgery to correct. Sometimes, discs in the spine will shrink and become worn, but it will not cause degenerative disc disease or pain. There have been some studies that have shown that some things will increase your risk of disc degeneration including smoking, obesity, or engaging in heavy physical labor.
Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease
The symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary, mostly because the spinal cord connects to so many different nerves. Your symptoms may be mild or severe depending on the condition of the discs. The most common symptom is pain, which can vary from mild strain to constant throbbing. Something important to note is that a good way to tell if the pain is from DDD is if the pain changes when you move or put yourself into a certain position. Another symptom is muscle strain or spasms. This happens because as the discs get smaller, the muscles around the vertebrae are strained and put out of place.
How is it diagnosed?
Many doctors will ask you several questions and order some tests before diagnosing degenerative disc disease. The doctor will want to know your medical history, so they ask several questions about your mobility and pain. They will likely ask where the pain is located and how often it hurts. They may also ask you what kinds of lifestyle choices you are making that can affect the strain on your back. The doctor will perform a physical exam that includes feeling the spine for any abnormalities. They may have you show your range of motion as well. Then, they may order an xray or an MRI. These tests can show your bone structure and your soft tissue, helping to see if your discs are in any way malformed.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, there are several options available for treatment. Most treatments available for degenerative disc disease are to relieve the pain, and then work on fixing the problem.
Treatment of mild pain and symptoms
When the pain is mild, the doctor may suggest several different methods of treating it at home. These include using heat or cold to reduce inflammation or relax the tight muscles, and over-the-counter pain medications. Physical Therapy is another way to help strengthen the muscles around the spine so that the pain may be relieved. Chiropractic procedures may also help if the spine is misaligned due to the discs being swollen. There is also a small machine called a TENS unit that sends tiny electrical pulses into the affected area. This may relieve pain and help with muscle strain. These methods can help especially if the pain has been occurring for a short time rather than for many years.
Treatment of more severe pain
In cases of more painful and intense symptoms, the treatments can be a bit more invasive. To relieve the pain, the doctor may prescribe narcotics. They may also give an oral steroid, or inject a steroid directly into the area that is affected. They can also inject a nerve blocker which can stop the nerves of that area from sending pain signals to the brain. This can last for over a year if done correctly, and many people find relief through these injections. However, the main treatment for severe disc degeneration is surgery.
There are several different kinds of surgery available for degenerative disc disease. One of these is spinal fusion. A surgeon makes an incision and removes the inflamed or degenerating disc, then fuses the vertebrae together around the spinal cord. Depending on the area, this can reduce mobility, but can almost always relieve the pain. This is the most common surgery for treating disc disease. Another surgical option is disc replacement. This is becoming more and more popular, as the materials used to create artificial discs have become much more available and affordable. A disc replacement also may take longer to heal, but it seems to be a better option for younger patients. Another surgery that may be recommended can be removing bone spurs if they have developed on the vertebrae. This may relieve pain without removing the degenerating disc.
Do you need to be seen for Degenerative Disc Disease?
If you are experiencing pain in your back or neck, it could be from degenerating discs. It is better to receive treatment as soon as possible in order to avoid more invasive procedures. With most pain that does not seem normal, especially as you age, you need to be seeing your doctor regularly. If disc degeneration goes untreated, discs could rupture or tear, causing even more damage. It can also cause damage to the spinal cord, which could create problems in your nerves, even leading to paralysis. Make sure to visit your doctor if you are feeling irregular pains. There are many different options and they will help you to select the best plan for your specific pain. Always ask about different kinds of treatment if what you are doing is not working, and your doctor will be happy to help you to relieve your pain and get the best possible outcome!