You may have heard the term degenerative disc disease as a disease related to back pain. In fact, degenerative disc disease isn’t a disease at all. This condition describes damaged spinal discs, which can cause extreme back pain as well as other symptoms. Degenerative disc disease is quite common as nearly everyone’s discs break down over time, but not everyone feels pain. Cary Orthopaedic Spine Center is here to answer all your questions about degenerative disc disease.

What is degenerative disc disease?

When your back is healthy, the discs between the spinal vertebrae function like shock absorbers to absorb the forces as you bend, flex and twist.

As you age, these discs can begin to degrade. Most people start showing signs of wear as they get older due to everyday movements. Nearly everyone will experience some degree of disc degeneration. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies show that almost everyone older than age 60 has degeneration of the discs.

What causes degenerative disc disease?

Aging is the most significant risk factor for degenerative disc disease; it leads to two leading causes of the problem:

  1. Discs begin to lose fluid and dry out, therefore not absorbing shocks as well as a healthy disc.
  2. Discs can also become injured, tearing during sports or everyday movements. The outer covering of the disc can develop a tear, causing the internal fluid in the disc to leak out. This compromises the disc and renders it unable to absorb shock as well.

Swelling, pain and spinal instability can all result from these injuries, and because discs have very little of their own blood supply, they cannot heal on their own once the injury has occurred. Instead, discs continue to deteriorate.

What are the symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

The most common symptom of degenerated discs is pain. While most pain tends to be concentrated in the low back or neck, other forms of pain can occur, depending on the location of the degenerated disc or discs.

For a cervical disc that has degenerated, pain may begin in the neck and radiate to the arms and hands. For a lower back disc injury, pain can affect the lower back or thighs and buttocks. The pain is usually worse when sitting and frequently worsens during lifting or bending and twisting movements. Pain can range from mild to debilitating and typically gets better when walking or moving and when changing positions from sitting to lying down.

As the disc degenerates, you may experience episodes of severe pain that last a few days, which may be accompanied by tingling and numbness in the arms and legs. As the disc continues to degenerate, pain episodes may even last a few months. Over time, the disc may completely collapse, causing the vertebrae to grind against each other, creating pain and stiffness.

Muscle weakness in the legs may occur, as well as foot drop, a condition in which the foot muscles become weak. These muscles lift and flex the ankle and toes, so the condition usually causes the foot to drag while walking.

Interestingly, not all people who have degenerated discs experience back pain.

How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?

Physicians will ask patients to thoroughly describe symptoms, discuss how the pain began and how long it has been occurring. Patients who have the types of pain described above are assessed, and if the pain cannot be attributed to another problem, the patient is usually diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. To make a definitive diagnosis, the physician will take the patient’s detailed medical history and perform a thorough physical exam. Physicians may order an MRI, which can show disc damage. However, an MRI by itself cannot confirm the presence of degenerative disc disease.

How is degenerative disc disease treated?

Physicians start the treatment plan by trying to control the pain. They may prescribe over-the-counter or prescription medications. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen work well as do non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen.

Depending on the location and severity of the injury, your doctor may recommend exercises to strengthen the surrounding back muscles that support the spine. Exercise can also make the muscles more flexible, while at the same time increasing blood flow, which helps provide oxygen and nutrients to promote healing in the area.

Physical therapy may be recommended, and heat and cold therapy may also help. A treatment called spinal immobilization can also relieve disc pressure.

At some point, surgery to replace the damaged disc with an artificial disc may be required. In some cases, the surgeon may recommend a spinal fusion to stabilize the spine.

Treating degenerative disc disease in the Raleigh-Cary region

Keep in mind that there are many things you can also do to help the situation, such as ensuring you get lots of physical activity. You can also do at-home exercises to strengthen the supporting spinal muscles, drink plenty of water and eat a healthy diet. Any measure you take to live well each day and make healthy lifestyle choices will go a long way in helping you with degenerated discs.

The Cary Orthopaedic Spine Center is the region’s only comprehensive spine specialty practice, offering full-service care to patients who suffer from neck and back pain or spinal disorders. Our highly skilled, fellowship-trained spine specialists can help you find relief from pain caused by degenerative disc disease. Contact us today to make an appointment at one of our Triangle locations.