Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back and neck pain, and also one of the most misunderstood conditions among people who suffer from it. Let’s take a closer look at the causes of degenerative disc disease, why it’s misunderstood, and how it can be treated.
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Despite its name, degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease, but a condition in which the soft rubbery discs between your vertebrae begin to break down due to normal age-related wear and tear. These discs help you bend, twist, and remain flexible. They also protect your vertebrae (the bones that make up your spine) from the shock of everyday movements. If these discs break down enough over time, they stop providing as much protection, which can result in pain and discomfort.
What Are the Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative disc disease is extremely common. In fact, most people experience disc degeneration over their lifetimes, but may not develop symptoms. However, those who develop symptoms may experience anything from mild discomfort to sharp, shooting pain.
These are common signs you may have degenerative disc disease.
- Pain in the neck, lower back, buttocks, or upper thighs
- Pain when you sit, but dissipates when you stand and walk
- Pain when you bend, lift, or twist
- Pain that comes and goes over time
The good news is that this condition usually does not result in long-term disability, and most cases can be managed using non-surgical treatment methods.
What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?
We already know that degenerative disc disease is a natural part of aging, but these are the specific ways your discs can change over time:
- Loss of fluid: When you’re young, your discs are mostly made up of water. As you age, discs dry out and flatten and don’t absorb shock as well.
- Cracks and tears: The stress of everyday movements and minor injuries over the years can cause tiny tears in the outer wall of your discs, which contain nerves. Any tears near the nerves can cause pain.
How is Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosed?
In order to diagnose degenerative disc disease, your doctor will first talk to you about your medical history and your symptoms. You’ll be asked:
- When did the pain start?
- Which part of your spine hurts?
- Is there pain in other parts of your body?
- Have you had any spinal injuries in the past?
- Does anyone in your family have similar problems?
Next, your doctor will examine your spine and pinpoint where the pain is located. You may be asked to bend, twist, and walk so the doctor can observe how the damage is impacting your movements.
If your doctor thinks it is necessary, you may be sent for an X-ray or MRI to rule out bone or nerve damage.
How is Degenerative Disc Disease Treated?
Treatment options for degenerative disc disease include:
- Medication: Your doctor may recommend over-the counter medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. If these don’t prove to be effective, then you may receive a prescription for a stronger medication.
- Steroid shots: If oral pain medications don’t work, then your doctor may inject a cortisone steroid directly into your spinal column.
- Physical therapy: Working with a physical therapist can help strengthen the muscles in your back and neck, which can support the spine.
- Surgery: It’s a last resort, but if your pain persists in spite of other treatment options, then surgery may be required. The surgeon may remove the injured part of the disc or replace your disc with an artificial one.
If you’re experiencing degenerative disc disease or any type of pain that’s interfering with your quality of life, then make an appointment to see a pain specialist such as Dr. Mingi Choi of Somerset Orthopedic & Sports Medicine. Dr. Choi has more than 25 years of experience successful diagnosing and treating those who suffer from chronic pain. He is board-certified by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a Fellow of American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.