Degenerative Disc Disease

BACK to overview
set an appointment

After my first visit and on to the next, your staff just continued to impress me with their friendliness, efficiency and empathy.

- M. M., Simi Valley, CA

Spinal discs are like soft, compressible shock absorbers between the bones of the spine. Degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease but a term used to describe a level of wear and tear on spinal discs as they age that can cause pain and also affect nerve function. Degenerative disk disease can occur throughout the spine but mostly occurs in the discs in the lower (lumbar) back and neck (cervical) region.

Causes/Risk Factors

As we age, spinal discs can break down and sometimes result in degenerative disc disease. Several factors contribute to this, including:

  • Loss of fluid: spinal discs and joints are partly composed of cartilage. Over time, the water and protein content of the body’s cartilage changes, resulting in weaker, more fragile and thinner cartilage throughout the body. This reduces the disc’s ability to act as a shock absorber and makes them less flexible. Loss of fluid also makes discs thinner and narrows the distance between the vertebrae.
  • Tears or cracks in the outer layer of the disc: tiny cracks or tears in the outer layer of the disc can cause the disc to bulge, break open or break into fragments.
  • Injuries: injuries to this disc from a fall or a car accident or certain sport activities can cause swelling, soreness and instability.

Symptoms

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary widely from person to person.

  • While many people have no pain, others have severe pain that limits their activities.
  • An affected disc in the neck can result in neck or arm pain or tingling in the shoulder and arms, while an affected disk in the lower back may result in pain in the back, buttock or leg.
  • As a degenerative disc loses its ability to absorb stress and provide support, other parts of the spine become overloaded, leading to irritation, inflammation, fatigue, muscle spasms and back pain.
  • Types of pain can include:
    • Pain that is worse when sitting
    • Pain that gets worse when bending
    • Periods of pain—from nagging pain to severe, disabling pain—that come and go, lasting for a few days to a few months before getting better.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing degenerative disc disease generally begins with a physical exam to check the range of motion in your neck. Your pain specialist will also check your reflexes and the strength of your muscles to try to discern if there is pressure being placed on your spinal nerves or spinal cord. The next stages of diagnosis can include:

  • Imaging tests such as a CT scan to gather information about the bones in your neck, an MRI to gain insight into the state of your bones and soft tissues, and a myelogram to make areas of your spine more visible with an injectable dye.
  • Nerve function tests such as an electromyogram (EMG) that can measure the electrical activity in your nerves as they transmit messages to your muscles, and a nerve conduction study to measure the strength and speed of nerve signals can also be completed to determine if nerve signals are traveling properly to your muscles.

Treatment

At PMIR Medical Center, we understand that pain is a complex condition that affects the whole person—body, mind and spirit. We provide a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to treatment, customizing the most effective treatment plans for our patients and empowering them to become a collaborative partner in their recovery process.

Pain from degenerative disc disease can sometimes be self-managed by scheduling rest periods, using heat or cold therapy, doing exercise that can boost strength and reduce stiffness, and taking over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

At PMIR, we offer treatment options for degenerative disc disease that includes:

We specialize in non-medication-based therapies to help our patients achieve sustained pain relief. However, we do offer pain medication, when necessary, as a supplement to other treatment options.

We may also recommend supplementing your treatment at PMIR with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) options that include chiropractic care among other alternative therapies.

To learn more about how we treat degenerative disc disease and the treatment plan that might be best for you, schedule an appointment with a PMIR physician today.

more resources

PMIR Pain Checker

The PMIR symptom checker is intended for educational purposes only. PMIR encourages patients to educate themselves on all pain symptoms and the treatments we provide. However, we recommend anyone who may be suffering from any pain to not self-diagnose, or to supplement seeking medical advice with information on our site. If you are in pain, or have a medical emergency contact one of our offices or dial 911.