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Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative Disc Disease

What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is not actually disease as such, but rather a term used to describe the changes that happen to spine as we age.

Our spines are made up of 24 vertebrae (not including the sacrum and coccyx) which are separated by soft spinal discs. These discs act as shock absorber for the spine, allowing it to twist and bend in various positions.

Degenerative disc disease can happen anywhere in spine but it typically occurs most often in the lower back (lumbar region) discs, and the neck (cervical region).

Degenerative disc disease can result in:

  • Back Pain
  • Neck Pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Herniated Disc
  • Spinal stenosis – narrowing of spinal canal

These conditions can put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, leading to pain and in more severe cases, impaired nerve function.

mri degenerative disc disease 550x452 Degenerative Disc Disease

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Image Credit: Stillwaterising, 2010.

What causes degenerative disc disease?

As with all things natural and manmade, our spinal discs begin to wear down with age. This natural process can happen earlier in some and symptoms of pain and impaired functions often differ from patient to patient.

Common causes of degenerative disc disease include:

  • The loss of fluid from spinal discs which reduces the discs ability to absorb shock
  • The loss of fluid which narrows the distance between the vertebrae can make the spine less flexible
  • To combat the reduced space between the vertebrae, the body produces bone spurs known as osteophytes
  • Acute injury leading to herniated disc or repetitive strain syndrome can also begin the degradation process
  • Small cracks in the outer layer (annulus or capsule) of the disc resulting from injury or strain may allow the jellylike material inside (nucleus) to leak, which can cause the disc to rupture, break or swell

Degenerative disc disease is more likely to occur in people who smoke cigarettes, are obese, or those who do heavy physical work (such as repeated heavy lifting).

Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

Neck Pain & Back Pain

The amount and location of pain experienced as a result of degenerative disc disease varies from patient to patient. Some people may fell little pain at all, while other experience chronic pain that can limit their activities.

Although the location of pain varies depending on the location of the problem, an affected disc in the neck region can cause pain or numbness in the arm, and an affected disc in the lower back can result in pain or numbness the leg or buttocks.

Depending on the severity of the affected disc/s, pain can often get worse when performing movements such as twisting the upper body, bending over, or reaching up.

Diagnosing Degenerative Disc Disease

To diagnose degenerative disc disease your doctor will perform a physical examination and check your medical history. They will ask you about your symptoms, previous injuries or illnesses, as well as any hobbies or activities you may have that could be causing the pain.
During the physical examination the doctor will:

  • Check the affected area and the resulting pain caused by movement
  • Check for areas of tenderness, numbness and weakness
  • Test your reflexes
  • Check for other conditions such as bone fractures, joint damage, tumors and infections

If your examination reveals no sign of a serious condition, it is likely the imaging tests such as X-ray will not help either.

However, imaging test may be used if your symptoms develop following an injury, if your doctor suspects nerve damage, or if your medical history puts you in the high risk category for bone disease, tumors or infections.

How to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease

To help relieve pain, you can apply an icepack or heat pack (whichever you prefer) to the affected area. Over the counter-drugs such as acetaminophen, paracetamol (Tylenol); or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including aspirin (Bayer), ibuprofen (Advil); or naproxen sodium (Aleve) can also help to relieve symptoms.

For more severe pain, your doctor may prescribe stronger pain-killers.

WebMD warns not to give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome.

Further treatment largely depends on whether the damaged disc has lead to other conditions, such as a herniated disc, osteoarthritis, or spinal stenosis.

Doctors commonly recommend physical therapy and exercises for strengthening and stretching the back. However some cases may require surgery.

Surgery for degenerative disc disease typically involves removing the damaged disc. In some cases, the bone is then permanently fused to protect the spinal cord.

Also, artificial discs can also be used to replaces ruptured discs.

Degenerative Disc Disease Surgery

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  1. Degenerative Disc Disease – Topic Overview. WebMD, July 2008.

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