Definition

What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is not really a disease but a term used to describe the normal changes in your spinal discs as you age.

As discs lose their water content because of disease or age, they lose their height, bringing the vertebrae closer together. As a result, the nerve openings in your spine become more narrow. When this happens, the discs don’t absorb the shocks as well, particularly when you are walking, running, or jumping.

Degenerative disc disease can take place throughout the spine, but it most often occurs in the discs in the lower back (lumbar region) and the neck (cervical region).

The changes in the discs can result in back or neck pain and/or:

  • Osteoarthritis, the breakdown of the tissue (cartilage) that protects and cushions joints.
  • Herniated disc, an abnormal bulge or breaking open of a spinal disc.
  • Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal camera.gif, the open space in the spine that holds the spinal cord.

These conditions may put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, leading to pain and possibly affecting nerve function.

How common is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease can affect patients at any age. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease may result in back or neck pain, but this varies from person to person. Many people have no pain, while others with the same amount of disc damage have severe pain that limits their activities.

Where the pain occurs depends on the location of the affected disc. An affected disc in the neck area may result in neck or arm pain, while an affected disc in the lower back may result in pain in the back, buttock, or leg. The pain often gets worse with movements such as bending over, reaching up, or twisting.

The pain may start after a major injury (such as from a car accident), a minor injury (such as a fall from a low height), or a normal motion (such as bending over to pick something up). It may also start gradually for no known reason and get worse over time.

In some cases, you may have numbness or tingling in your leg or arm.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes degenerative disc disease?

As we age, our spinal discs break down, or degenerate, which may result in degenerative disc disease in some people. These age-related changes include:

  • The loss of fluid in your discs. This reduces the ability of the discs to act as shock absorbers and makes them less flexible. Loss of fluid also makes the disc thinner and narrows the distance between the vertebrae.
  • Tiny tears or cracks in the outer layer (annulus or capsule) of the disc. The jellylike material inside the disc (nucleus) may be forced out through the tears or cracks in the capsule, which causes the disc to bulge, break open (rupture), or break into fragments.

A sudden (acute) injury leading to a herniated disc (such as a fall) may also begin the degeneration process.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for degenerative disc disease?

There are many risk factors for degenerative disc disease, such as:

  • As you age, your discs, like other joints in the body, can degenerate (break down) and become problematic. However, degenerative disc disease can occur in people as young as 20. In fact, some patients may inherit a prematurely aging spine.
  • Smoking
  • Heavy physical work (such as repeated heavy lifting)
  • Obesity

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?

The diagnosis of degenerative disc disease begins with a physical examination of the body, with special attention paid to the back and lower extremities.

Your doctor will examine your back for flexibility, range of motion, and the presence of certain signs that suggest that your nerve roots are being affected by degenerative changes in your back. This often involves testing the strength of your muscles and your reflexes to make sure that they are still working normally.

You will often be asked to fill out a diagram that asks you where your symptoms of pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness are occurring. X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be ordered.

How is degenerative disc disease treated?

To relieve pain, put ice or heat (whichever feels better) on the affected area and use acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Your doctor can prescribe stronger medicines if needed. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

If you develop health problems such as osteoarthritis, a herniated disc, or spinal stenosis, you may need other treatments. These include physical therapy and exercises for strengthening and stretching the back. In some cases, surgery may be recommended. Surgery usually involves removing the damaged disc. In some cases, the bone is then permanently joined (fused) to protect the spinal cord. In rare cases, an artificial disc may be used to replace the disc that is removed.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage degenerative disc disease?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with degenerative disc disease:

To help deal with pain from degenerative disc disease, besides using medications, you can try:

  • Bed rest (just a few days)
  • Restricting your activities that increase the pain
  • Light exercise (walking, swimming, etc) as recommended by your doctor

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: October 31, 2017 | Last Modified: October 31, 2017

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