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What is Degenerative Disc Disease?


Degenerative disc disease refers to changes in the spine that most often result from wear and tear. Though everyone experiences some disc degeneration by age 40, for some the damage can be more severe and may result in pain and numbness. Degenerative disc disease can affect any part of your spine.

Between each of the bones (vertebrae) in your spine are discs. Each disc contains a gel-like center that helps absorb the impact of our movements and allows our backs to move freely. As we age, the discs begin to lose water and shrink, making it harder for them to absorb the shock of our movements. This shrinkage can also change the position of the vertebrae. All of these can lead to pain, which is the most common symptom of degenerative disc disease. As the damage to the discs gets worse, the gel-like center can escape and irritate or pinch a spinal nerve, resulting in other symptoms. In the later stages of degenerative disc disease, bone spurs form due to the lack of space in the spinal canal (stenosis) allowing contact with nerve roots and causing pain.

Don’t delay relief. If you’re tired of living with debilitating pain that makes it impossible to enjoy life’s everyday moments, Back Pain Centers of America can help. Call [sc name=”patient_phone_number_dash”] and join the thousands of others who have found relief from debilitating pain with the help of our board-certified specialists.

How degenerative disc disease impacts the spine

Degenerative Disc Disease Causes and Risk Factors

Aging is the most common cause of degenerative disc disease because of the everyday wear and tear on our discs. Along with aging, there are other risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing the painful symptoms of degenerative disc disease.

Risk factors for degenerative disc disease include:

  • Certain occupations – Jobs that involve repetitive strain on the spine, such as bending, pulling, twisting or lifting, can cause degenerative disc disease. Sitting hunched over a computer all day also increases your risk due to increased pressure on the discs.
  • Contact sports – Along with stress put on the spine from repetitive movement, contact sports heighten your risk of injury to the spine.
  • Excess body weight – Obesity causes stress on your spine and the muscles that support it. Maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of degenerative disc disease prevention.
  • Sedentary lifestyle – A lack of physical activity can cause the muscles in your back and abdomen to weaken, making it harder for them to support your spine.
  • Smoking – Smoking has been found to decrease the amount of water in the discs, speeding up the degenerative process.
  • Genetics – Those with a family history of degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis are more likely to develop the condition.

Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

Degenerative disc disease symptoms can vary in severity and location depending on the extent of the damage and nerve involvement, as well as the part of the spine affected.

Common symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:

  • Back or neck pain
  • Pain that worsens with certain movements or positions
  • Pain that radiates to the shoulders, arms, hands, buttock or legs
  • Tingling in the extremities
  • Muscle weakness affecting the arms, hands, legs or feet

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Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment Options

The treatment of degenerative disc disease should begin with a series of conservative treatments. If nonsurgical treatments fail to provide enough relief of symptoms or if your degenerative disc disease causes weakness that interferes with your ability to stand or walk, surgery may be recommended.

The following are nonsurgical degenerative disc disease treatment options (consult with your doctor to determine what is best for you):

  • Pain medication – Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as analgesics and ibuprofen, are usually able to relieve mild to moderate pain and inflammation. If OTC pain medications don’t work for you, your doctor may prescribe stronger pain medication for short-term use.
  • Muscle relaxants – This type of medication can relieve painful muscle spasms.
  • Heat and cold packs – Applying heat and/or cold packs is an effective way to soothe pain and decrease inflammation. Alternating between hot and cold is preferred.
  • Exercise – Staying active helps relieve stiffness and pain and is also an important part of degenerative disc disease prevention that can help slow progression of the damage to your spine.
  • Physical therapy – A physical therapist will provide you with special stretches to relieve pressure on the discs in your spine and strengthening exercises to help the muscles in your abdomen and back support your spine more effectively. Proper lifting and posture are also part of physical therapy for degenerative disc disease treatment.
  • Steroid injections – Steroid medication is injected into the affected area of the spine for temporary relief of inflammation and pain.

When nonsurgical degenerative disc disease treatment options fail, surgery should be considered.

Surgical Treatment Options

There are a few minimally invasive procedures that may be used as a part of degenerative disc disease treatment. Minimally invasive spine surgery offers patients the benefits of open spine surgery without the long hospital stay or recovery. Most are performed on an outpatient basis so you can go home in a matter of hours rather than days.

A discectomy is the most common surgical treatment for degenerative disc disease and is used to remove a portion of the damaged disc. Other procedures that may be used to treat degenerative disc disease symptoms include those to stabilize the spine, such as spinal fusion, or artificial disc replacement.

Back Pain Centers of America specializes in minimally invasive spine surgery and has helped more than 30,000 people find relief from pain. Take the first step in getting back your active life by calling us at [sc name=”patient_phone_number_dash”] today.

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