What causes degenerative disc disease?
As we age, changes take place in the discs that can result in the discs losing their cushioning or shock-absorbing capabilities. These changes include:
- Loss of fluid in the central gel-like portion of the disc, resulting in discs that are less flexible and thinner or more compressed.
- Tears in the fibrous outer layer of the disc that allow the gel-like material in the center of the disc to leak out.
As a result of these changes, movement of the spine begins to cause pain, both in the spine itself and sometimes radiating outward into the areas of the body served by the nerves in that area of the spine. The condition occurs most commonly in the lower back (lumbar spine) and the neck (cervical spine), and in people who smoke, are obese, or perform heavy work such as repetitive lifting. In some cases, injuries such as falls or auto accidents can trigger the degeneration process.
What are the symptoms of degenerative disc disease?
The symptoms of degenerative disc disease can vary from person to person, but typically include:
- back pain
- neck pain
- pain in the arm, leg or buttock that often gets worse with movement
- numbness radiating into the arms, legs, hands or feet
- weakness in the arms or legs
The amount and frequency of pain can also vary, from mild and occasional to severe and chronic.
How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?
The diagnosis begins with a physical exam and a comprehensive medical history, as well as a discussion of your symptoms. You’ll also need to provide information about when the pain began, what activities make it worse or better, any prior treatments you’ve had, and any pain you may be experiencing in other areas of your body like your arms, legs or buttocks. During the exam, your doctor will check for range of motion in your back or neck and evaluate pain caused by certain motions like bending or twisting. The doctor will also ask you about symptoms like numbness, tingling or weakness in your arms or legs, and your reflexes may be tested. In some cases, such as when nerve damage is suspected, if you have a family history of bone disease or tumors, or when pain could be the result of an accident, x-rays or other imaging studies may be ordered for a more in-depth evaluation of your condition.
How is degenerative disc disease treated?
Ice packs or heating pads combined with an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be used to help relieve pain in most cases. When more severe pain is present, your doctor can prescribe a stronger painkiller.
It’s also important to know that in some people, degenerative disc disease can cause other conditions to occur, such as osteoarthritis, disc herniation or spinal stenosis. If one of those conditions develops, additional treatments may be needed to provide relief.
Will my pain continue to get worse as I age?
Interestingly, despite its name, many people find the pain from degenerative disc disease resolves or lessens over time. Why? Because much of the nerve-related pain from degenerative disc disease occurs because inflammatory proteins cause irritation. Eventually, once all those proteins escape and are “burned out,” irritation ceases and patients experience a lessening or complete resolution of pain. In addition, as the disc becomes thinner and stiffer, motion in that area of the spine is minimized, which can also lead to less discomfort. However, because untreated degenerative disc disease can cause or exacerbate other serious spine conditions, getting treatment at the first indication of symptoms is critical.