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Degenerative Disc Disease

The term, degenerative disc disease, can be a little misleading and somewhat alarming to people recently diagnosed with the spinal condition. That’s because it’s not really a disease and it is not a diagnosis that will get progressively worse, as the name suggests. 

In fact, the discs that cushion your bones (vertebrae) commonly deteriorate over time. As these disks breakdown (degenerate), it can cause lower back and neck pain. If you are suffering from chronic pain in your back or neck, then degenerating discs may be the reason.

What is degenerative disc disease?

The discs that make up our spine – from our lower back to the top of our neck - are soft, interlocking fibrocartilage. These discs work as shock absorbers and allow our spine to bend, twist and move.

As we age, those discs deteriorate from the wear and tear of daily activities. When that happens, it becomes harder for the spine to move, which can cause pain or discomfort during everyday activities. Natural changes to our spine include:

  • Fluid loss in the spine, which makes discs less flexible, thinner and shortens the distance between vertebrae
  • Cracks or tears on the outer layer of the disc, which can cause discs to bulge, rupture or break into fragments

When those changes cause chronic pain and impact your daily life, then you may be diagnosed with degenerative disc disease.

It is important to remember that while everyone’s discs deteriorate over time, some individuals may be at higher risk of developing symptoms. Risk factors for degenerative disc disease include: 

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Repeated heavy lifting, such as from a job
  • Sudden injury that causes a herniated disc

What are symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

The main symptom of degenerative disc disease is pain, which can vary greatly between individuals. Generally, individuals may experience mild to moderate chronic pain and may also have flare-ups that last anywhere from hours to days, weeks or months.

Pain is sometimes improved when standing, walking or moving around. It may also subside when shifting positions, propping up knees or reclining. 

Pain severity can vary greatly between individuals and, surprisingly, is not related to the damage to the disc. Individuals with severe deterioration to discs may only experience mild pain, while individuals with mild damage to spinal discs can experience severe pain. 

How is degenerative disc disease treated?

Treatment can’t stop the deterioration of discs, but there are many options that will help reduce pain caused by degenerative disc disease and help prevent other spinal conditions from developing, such as spinal stenosis, spinal osteoarthritis, and spondylolisthesis

Your doctor will work closely with you to create a plan to help manage your degenerative disc disease. That could include pain management, exercise and physical therapy and lifestyle modifications.

Pain management

The goal of pain management will be to help keep you comfortable during day-to-day activities and also enable you to participate in a physical therapy program. Closely follow your physician’s instructions and read all medication labels to ensure you are taking medicine safely and effectively.

Physical therapy 

Physical therapy for degenerative disc disease can help strengthen your spine and help reduce future pain. A therapist will work closely with you to develop exercises to do during therapy sessions and exercises you can do at home. 

Lifestyle modifications

There are simple steps you can take in your daily life to help reduce your back or neck pain. The first step is to identify trigger points – those activities and positions that can cause an increased severity of pain – and find ways to avoid or modify those activities. For example, an ergonomic chair, keyboard or standing desk can help relieve pain during the workday. Other changes that can help reduce pain include:

  • Good posture
  • Walk or stand throughout the day
  • Daily stretches
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Limit alcohol use
  • Avoid nicotine

Do I need surgery for degenerative disc disease?

Most individuals do not need surgery to address pain from degenerative disc disease. However, if you are unable to manage your pain with a non-surgical approach, such as pain management, therapy, and lifestyle modification, your doctor may talk to you about spine surgery.

Our experienced team at the Spine Center at St. Elizabeth offer the latest advances and technology in spine care to help ease your neck and back pain. Surgical options for degenerative disc disease include:

How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will conduct a complete exam to help determine if you have degenerative disc disease. During your appointment, you will answer comprehensive questions about your pain, possible causes and any past injuries to your neck or back. Your physician will exam the affected areas and may order additional tests to rule out other possible causes of neck or back pain.