Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) – An Overview
Degenerative disc disease is a condition that causes spinal pain due to changes in the spinal discs. It is the commonest known cause of back and neck pain. In other words, wear and tear in the spinal disc that causes neck and/or back pain can be termed degenerative disc disease.
Our spine has a number of small bones known as vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other. Between each vertebra, a spinal disc serves as a shock absorber and prevents spinal damage caused by impacts. These disks also provide flexibility to the spine while allowing us to bend and twist.
Wear and tear in these discs occur as we grow old; in some, they may even stop working. Age-related degeneration of discs occurs in almost everyone but, everyone may not experience pain. So, if there is pain in the neck or lower back because of disc damage, degenerative disc disease may be the cause.
What Are the Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degeneration in spinal discs is common with age and the changes that may occur as a result include:
In a healthy person, the spinal discs are full of water. With age, the water content starts to reduce, and discs become flatter. This affects the cushioning ability of the discs. Thinner spinal discs cannot absorb shock well and as a result, other spinal problems may start to occur while causing spinal pain.
As a result of everyday stress, the outer layer of the spinal disc wears down with time. This outer wall contains nerves and any injury to nerves causes pain. Sometimes, the outer wall breaks down while pushing the inner soft core of the disc out through the breaks. Along with intense pain, this may also give rise to other spinal problems like a herniated disc.
What Are the Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?
Though the most common symptoms associated with the condition are neck and back pain, the exact pain location may vary depending on the location of the affected disc. The patient may experience:
- Pain in the lower back, upper thighs, or buttocks
- Intermittent pain that may last for a few days to months
- Pain that improves while standing or walking and becomes worse while sitting
- Worse pain while lifting objects, bending, or twisting
- Sometimes, numbness or tingling may be seen in the arms and legs
What is the Diagnosis of Degenerative Disc Disease?
Physical examination and diagnostic tests both play important roles in the correct diagnosis of degenerative disc disease. During the diagnosis, the healthcare service provider may ask certain questions that may include:
- When the pain first started?
- What is the exact location where the spine hurts?
- Are there other painful locations in the body?
- Are there any previous spine injuries?
- Is there a family history of spine injuries?
The doctor will also notice painful areas on the spine by gently pressing over there to get a better idea. Besides this, the person may also be asked to bend, twist, or walk to notice movements that cause pain.
After all this, the doctor will order an X-ray or MRI test to confirm if there is nerve or bone damage.
What is the Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease?
The goal of the treatment of degenerative disc disease is to curb painful symptoms and prevent further damage. The doctor always tries non-invasive treatments at first. They include:
The doctor will prescribe analgesics and anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medicines to curb pain and inflammation. Sometimes, the doctor prescribes a stronger version of the medicine, especially when OTC fails to relieve the symptoms.
Targeted physical therapy can strengthen neck and back muscles while improving their flexibility. A physiotherapist should help you with how to do exercise correctly.
When medicines don’t work, the doctor may inject steroids directly into spinal nerves to relieve pain and inflammation.
This is a non-invasive technique to improve back pain. In this process, electric currents produces heat to burn sensory nerves causing pain. Also known as radiofrequency ablation, this is performed as an outpatient procedure.
Surgery for the treatment of degenerative disc disease is the option when non-surgical methods fail to provide relief. Spinal decompression surgery is one of many spinal surgeries and there are several ways to carry out the procedure:
In this procedure, the spinal surgeon removes a disc or a part of it to relieve pressure on nerves.
During foraminotomy, the surgeon expands the area around one of the spinal bones to expand the opening of nerve roots.
Here, the surgeon removes a small part of the bone from the lower spine to relieve pressure on the nerve.
This surgical procedure improves spinal stability by fusing two or more vertebrae.
Sometimes, nerve compression occurs because of bone spurs and surgery can remove them.
How to Prevent Degenerative Disc Disease?
Adopt a Healthy and Active Lifestyle
Age-related degeneration of the spine and other bones is likely but, the speed at which this occurs can be reduced. For that, one needs to maintain an active lifestyle with daily exercising. Here, focusing on the back and core muscles will help a lot.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Overweight people tend to put undue pressure on the spine and as a result, degeneration occurs at a much higher rate. The best way to prevent this is to maintain ideal body weight. If you are obese and are not able to reduce weight, seek the help of a specialist.
Maintain a Good Body Posture
It doesn’t matter which activities you are doing; it is very important to maintain a good body posture. For example, while sitting, maintain an upright body posture with head straight, back leaning on the backrest of the chair, knees bent at 90 degrees, and both feet flat on the ground.
Smoking results in rapid bone loss and this also affects the spine. Smokers are at a high risk of developing degenerative disc disease. Not only this but tobacco also decreases the rebuilding activity of the discs. Hence, to prevent the degenerative condition from happening, quit smoking.