What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?
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Disc degeneration is one of the most common causes of lower back pain, but it’s frequently misunderstood. For example, 30% of people aged 30-50 years old will have some type of degeneration in their spine. When they hit 60, most people will have some changes. But, the majority of patients won’t experience any painful symptoms.
Further, if you do experience pain, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will get worse. Unlike the common understanding that a degenerative disc and associated pain would get worse, generally the pain does not worsen over time. Further, disc degeneration is a typical part of aging. Many people have changes in their spinal discs who experience no symptoms at all. But, for others, the damaged disc can lead to extreme pain that affects their overall quality of life.
This post discusses what causes this conditions, along with at-home and interventional degenerative disc disease treatments that could help you relieve your pain and get back to your life. The following degenerative disc disease video gives a brief overview of both of these.
Anatomy of the SpineTo understand what causes this condition, it’s important to look at the spine itself.
Small bones called vertebrae make up the spinal column. These interlock to form a canal through which the spinal cord may travel. The larger part of one of these bones holds a disc-shaped piece of cartilage. This cushions and stabilizes the vertebra above it.
These discs, known as intervertebral discs, act as the shock absorbers for, and main support of, the spine. However, these can degenerate or gradually wear down over time. Because they don’t have a direct blood supply, these discs can’t repair themselves like other bodily tissues. When this happens, one or more of these discs may lead to changes in the alignment of the spine. And this can lead to pain for some patients.
This is known as degenerative disc disease, which is mostly associated with advanced age.
Degenerative Disc Disease SymptomsSymptoms vary for each patient. If you’re suffering from this condition, you may experience:
- A localized stabbing pain in your back
- Leg pain
- General and widespread back pain
- A lack of feeling in your back or extremities
- Prickly sensations in your back or extremities
- Difficulty walking
Degenerative disc disease can cause pain in many parts of the back. Your pain may increase in response to movement. Some patients report their pain as being felt over a wide area. Others feel a concentrated sharp pain in one small area. Degenerative disc disease may cause other effects, such as a loss of normal sensory or motor abilities.
Degenerative disc disease is associated with some other conditions, including:
- Osteoarthritis: This is a chronic degeneration of cartilage. Without this material, the bones within joints may come into direct contact with one another, which may result in damage and pain.
- Disc herniation: This is a condition in which an intervertebral disc may bulge outward or break in two. This is also related to age-related degeneration.
- Spinal stenosis: This refers to a narrowing (stenosis) of the spinal canal. This results in the compression of the spinal cord. It can cause chronic pain or neurological symptoms.
Degenerative Disc Disease CausesMost researchers agree that this condition is likely related to simple wear-and-tear over time. However, some other scientists maintain that this cannot explain the degree of pain that some patients experience.
Because of this, they also suggest that disc degeneration may be associated with:
- A previous injury or fracture that releases inflammatory molecules in small nerve fibers near the disc
- Obesity, as this puts more pressure on the spinal column
- Those who smoke
- Your genetics
- Increased activity in muscles near the spinal column, such as repetitive movements
What Is The Best Treatment For Degenerative Disc Disease?A number of degenerative disc disease treatments are available, depending on the severity of your pain. Common treatments include:
- Degenerative disc disease exercises and stretches
- Hot and cold therapy
- Physical therapy
- Chiropractic care
- Epidural steroid injections
- Spinal cord stimulation
- Surgery, in extreme cases
More advanced interventions are normally reserved for patients who have severe, life-altering pain that hasn’t responded to other treatment methods.
If you’ve just started experiencing this type of pain, over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications can help relieve a brief episode of pain. Another at-home option is to apply alternate hot and cold compresses to sore areas.
Core strengthening exercises, such as yoga or swimming, can also help. Your doctor may also recommend the use of a brace.
Physical therapy is another great first-line treatment choice when you’re experiencing pain. You’ll perform a program of stretches, low-impact exercise, and specific conditioning guided by your physical therapist. This will help build weak muscles and work out tension.
Some other non-medical therapies may have some benefit for patients with mild to moderate pain. These include acupuncture, which is a procedure in which thin needles are inserted into various body parts to promote the release of endorphins.
Finally, chiropractic care can help resolve some issues due to this condition.
Patients with degenerative disc disease may also consider conventional drug therapy, or over-the-counter medications. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are common painkillers, such as ibuprofen. These reduce inflammation and treat mild to moderate pain. Oral corticosteroids can also reduce inflammation. They may be an effective option for patients without severe pain.
However, medications don’t generally resolve the underlying causes of the pain. While they can be helpful for short-term episodes, or more painful days, they’re not a good long-term management option. Or, if they are used, they’re taken alongside other treatments.
Patients whose degenerative disc disease is accompanied with severe pain should talk to their doctors about other options.
Epidural steroid injections involve the injection of steroid medications into a space between the vertebrae and spinal cord. This is associated with effective pain relief for many patients. The following video gives a great overview of how this procedure works.
Spinal cord stimulation is another procedure that can help in severe cases. Your doctor will implant a device that modulates pain signals to the brain. It’s safely implanted near your spinal cord. This device is connected to a hand-held controller that you can activate in response to pain.
Spinal cord stimulation has been shown to be effective in treating chronic pain conditions in the long term. One patient talks about how this option helped her find relief from her pain.
Finally, some cases of degenerative disc disease may result in severely damaged intervertebral disc material. This can cause severe chronic pain, numbness, or loss of motion. It may occur in conjunction with disc herniation, in which the outer part of the disc may rupture. Discography, in which discs suspected of extensive damage are injected with contrast material, can help determine whether this has taken place.
If this test proves positive, your doctor may need to remove these parts of your disc. Your doctor can use a discectomy to remove abnormal disc material is removed. This may be done in conjunction with disc decompression, which reduces the chances of damage to surrounding nerve tissue.
ConclusionIf you suffer from pain, you may be experiencing degenerative disc disease. Thankfully, there are options for reducing your pain and getting back to your life.
This condition is thought to be related to the wear and tear of the intervertebral discs of the spine over time. It’s often related to aging. Some researchers conclude that pain and damage to disc material is associated with excess inflammation in this tissue.
Many therapies can address your symptoms. Common first-line treatments include oral painkillers and physical therapy. Patients with more severe pain that is resistant to other treatments may consider epidural steroid injections. Your doctor will only attempt surgical interventions if other options haven’t worked or you’re experiencing sensory and motor deficits.
If you’re in pain, you don’t have to suffer alone. A dedicated pain specialist can help diagnose the cause of your pain. From there, she or he can provide treatment options that could work for you. They’ll use the least invasive therapies possible to provide you with the most pain relief. If you’re interested in learning more about treatments that could help you, click the button below to find a pain doctor in your area.
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