Over 3 million cases of degenerative disc disease are diagnosed yearly. Degenerative disc disease is also known as DDD, simply put is osteoarthritis (osteo = bone, arthritis = inflammation of the joint) of the spine. The spine, besides being a storehouse of nerves is a critical structural feature of the body. Any injury or damage to the parts of the spine can be detrimental. Unfortunately, some damage can happen without any direct injuries through what is known as degeneration, which comes naturally with age.
The spine is made of a column of bones known as vertebrae that are separated by a disc made of 80% water which serves as shock absorbers to cushion the spine, as seen in figure 1. As one age, those disc in between the vertebrae of the spine begin to degenerate and can lead to severe pain.
Interestingly disc like any other area of the body begins to break down and degenerate with age; therefore, disc degeneration is a natural part of aging, and everyone experiences it in their lifetime. As people age, the disc in the spine lose flexibility as well as water but it is not always diagnosed because everyone does not experience the symptoms of degenerative disc disease. Having said that, those who do the heavy lifting, are overweight and have had either major or minor injuries within the spinal column are more than likely to have a DDD diagnosis and cause it to progress quicker. According to the Arthritis Foundation almost “everyone over the age of 60 has disc degeneration; the earliest signs of degenerative disk disease is within the 11-16 year age group” but it is not as common.
Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease
The spine is divided into three components, lumbar (lower back), thoracic (mid-back), and cervical (neck). The symptoms of degenerative disc disease include neck pain, back pain, and sometimes arm and leg pain depending on where the disc degeneration is taking place in the spine. Symptoms could also include numbness. Although the degeneration of the disc may continue to progress, typically the pain does not increase. Some adverse effects of degenerative disc disease include herniated disc, bone spurs, pinched nerve, collapsed vertebrae, and spinal stenosis. There is no explanation for why some people have symptoms, and some do not. That just goes to show the uniqueness of humanity.
DDD can be diagnosed without using imaging. The most diagnosis comes through an office visit with your primary care physician. Based on a review of symptoms and any recent injuries, physicians can determine a DDD diagnosis. Other forms of diagnosis come through imaging such as X-ray, CAT scans, or MRI’s. There is no cure for DDD, but there are forms of treatment that can be helpful and allow you to have an excellent quality of life still. Most forms of treatment are not invasive. They include rest, physical therapy, medication, and visits to see a chiropractor. A more invasive treatment involves spinal fusion. Spinal fusion is a procedure done to fuse vertebrae that are rubbing together due to the degeneration of a disc. By fusing the vertebrae, they will heal as one bone. Since the bones are no longer rubbing together, the pain is minimized. Without a joint being there, the spine loses some flexibility but not to the point that you are unable to walk and move around frequently.
Although Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) sounds like a serious ailment, in all actuality it is not a disease at all. By definition, a disease is an “abnormality.” Degeneration is not an abnormality at all but a common part of life which comes with age. I guess you could say your body is just becoming wiser. Although there is no cure for DDD, the pain can be managed, and you can continue to live a healthy life and fulfill all the items on your bucket list.
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