Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)

Degenerative disc disease is not a real disease but a name that describes the typical changes that occur in your spinal discs with age. A spinal disc is a soft, liquid-filled disc of cartilage that separates each interlocking vertebrae in the spinal column and acts as shock absorbers in between these bones, allowing the spine to flex, bend, twist, etc. DDD happens throughout the entire spine, but most often occurs in the lower back and the neck. These disc changes can result in back and neck pain and with other diagnoses, like spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis, which breaks down the cartilage that protects and cushions joints. Degenerative Disc Disease can lead to or occur because of these ailments. All of these conditions may put pressure on the nerves and spinal cord and possibly affect nerve function.

What Causes DDD?

degenerative disc diseaseOur spinal discs degenerate as we age. The discs that cushion our spinal bones become dry and lose fluid, reducing their ability to absorb shock and leading to decreased flexibility. The discs become thinner and narrow the distance between the vertebrae. Tiny tears or cracks in the outer layer of the disc, possibly forcing out the jellylike material inside and causing the disc to bulge, rupture, or break. A sudden acute injury leading to a herniated disc may also cause early disc degeneration in some people.

What are the Symptoms of DDD?

Degenerative disc disease refers to a blend of problems in the spine that “begin” with damage to the disc, but ultimately begin to affect all parts of the spine. The most common early symptom of degenerative disc disease is usually a pain in the back that spreads to the buttocks and upper thighs.

Discogenic pain is pain caused by a damaged intervertebral disc. As the disc begins to degenerate, the disc itself becomes painful. Movements that place stress on the disc can result in back pain that appears to come from the disc. The pain felt in areas away from the real spot causing the pain in the body is called radiation of the pain. This radiation is why someone experiencing discogenic pain may feel pain in the back itself, the upper thighs, and the buttock area.

Bulging discs are fairly common in young adults and older people and aren’t a cause for panic. But it becomes necessary when it bulges enough to cause the spinal canal to narrow. This narrowing is referred to as spinal stenosis.

Treatment Options for DDD

degenerative disc diseaseBefore you can be diagnosed and given a treatment plan for your degenerative disc disease, a health care professional will discuss your history and your symptoms with you. Knowing when the pain began, whether a physical trauma spurred it on, the intensity and locations of the pain and the factors that intensify or decrease the pain are useful to answer the types of questions the physician will ask you. Make sure you’ll be able to answer about your family history with osteoporosis. The doctor will conduct a physical examination and check your spine and neck motion, muscle strength, painful areas, sensory changes, reflex changes, motor skills, and certain red flags that could indicate something other than spinal problems. Your physician will then apply some form of a diagnostic imaging test, such as an X-Ray or MRI.

Some back problems need immediate attention and possibly surgery, but the vast majority of them do not require surgery. Once you’ve ben diagnosed you and your provider can decide on a treatment plan.

In most cases simple physical therapy and exercise work wonders for spinal health. Types of physical therapies to expect a range of modalities (which involve heat and ice) to ultrasounds and electric stimulation. Bracing, pool therapy, and posture/flexibility/strength training are other examples. Studies show that regular exercisers will have far fewer problems with their backs. Exercise helps strengthen the muscles in the back that correspond with the spine. Exercising reduces the risk of falls, injuries, and strain by strengthening your abdomen, arms, and legs. Stretching decreases muscle spasms. Weight bearing exercise helps to prevent loss of bone mass caused by osteoporosis and reduces the risk of compression fractures. Best of all, aerobic exercise acts as a natural pain reliever by the release of endorphins.

These treatments work well and can optionally combine with mild amounts of pain medication. Aspirin, NSAIDs, analgesics, narcotics, relaxants, antidepressants, or steroid injections are precedents of medical treatment.  

Both types of treatment aim to reduce immediate pain, further degeneration and get you back to normal life.

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