What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
The term “degenerative disc disease” can be misleading, as this is not truly a disease, but a gradual breakdown of the discs that comes naturally with age or other contributing factors. While degeneration can happen throughout the spine, it is most common in the neck (cervical spine) or in the low back (lumbar spine).
Degeneration of the discs may have multiple contributing factors. The natural process of aging can break down the fluid inside the discs, making them less spongy, and thus lessening their effect on cushioning the spine. With the loss of fluid, the discs will begin to become thinner and will cause the vertebra of the spine to grow closer and closer together, which can begin to cause chronic pain.
Spine arthritis can also occur as a result of degenerative disc disease as the mechanics of the spine change and the disc loses its height and elasticity. A good example of this could be seen if the air was let out of all of your car tires. If you drove around on flat tires for a month it would cause many other mechanical problems to appear.
Disc bulges or herniations can cause the onset of degenerative disc disease. Bulges and herniations can also cause instability within the discs, leaving the vertebra lacking support and cushioning. Those who are obese or are employed in positions which require repeated lifting may also develop degenerative disc disease.
Treatment for pain due to degenerative disc disease usually starts conservatively with non steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (known as NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin. Cold and hot therapy can also be applied to the painful areas. Your physician may recommend physical therapy, chiropractic care, disc decompression (traction) or specific exercises that can help alleviate pain and help restore range of motion and flexibility.
If degenerative disc disease causes spine arthritis, a diagnostic procedure called a “medial branch block” might be performed to diagnose if this is the source of your pain. If it is in fact found to be the source of your pain a longer lasting procedure called radiofrequency ablation is often considered.
If disc bulge or herniation is the cause of degenerative disc disease, an epidural steroid injection may be discussed. An epidural steroid injection is another effective procedure to treat pain due to degenerative disc disease. These injections are minimally invasive procedures that can often lead to nearly complete pain relief. Epidural steroid injections consist of a steroid with anti-inflammatory properties, which will reduce the irritation and pain associated with inflamed nerves. If conservative measures fail, percutaneous disectomy may be considered. This is a surgical minimally invasive procedure that is intended to remove the bulging or herniated disc material, which effectively relives pain due to the bulge or herniation.
Degenerative disc disease often cannot be prevented, but measures can be taken to promote and maintain a healthy spine. Special care should be taken to lift heavy objects properly, and, since there is a link between obesity and degeneration of the discs, maintaining a healthy weight will help immensely in the long run.