The human spine is formed by 33 interlocking bones called vertebrae. Located between each pair of vertebrae is a disc that’s composed of tough and bony connective tissue surrounding a soft, gelatinous center. The role of the disc is to hold the vertebrae together and act as a shock absorber between the vertebrae, cushioning the impact of life’s activities while allowing the spine to flex, bend and twist as needed.
Vertebral discs, composed of 80 percent water at birth, lose fluid with age. As they dry out and shrink—and as daily activities, strenuous exercise and injuries lead to tears in the disc’s tough outer layer—a condition known as degenerative disc disease can occur.
Actually, it’s not a disease
Contrary to its name, degenerative disc disease is not a disease but a natural part of the aging process. As our rubbery discs lose their integrity, our vertebrae push closer together. When this happens, the nerve openings in the spine become narrower and the discs can’t absorb shock as well as before, which can lead to symptoms that include pain, numbness and tingling, or a radiating weakness, depending on the location of the affected disc. A damaged disc in the neck area may result in neck or arm pain, while an affected disc in the lower back may result in pain in the back, buttock or leg.
Studies show that almost everyone over the age of 60 has disc degeneration, though not everyone will experience pain. In fact, people with the same degree of disc damage might experience no pain or severe pain that limits their activities. Unlike other tissues in the body, there is very little blood supply to the disc so, once injured, it cannot repair itself and a spiral of degeneration can take place over a period of 20 to 30 years.
Common signs and symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease are:
- Pain that is triggered by an activity
- 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
- Walking may alleviate the pain
- Muscle spasms
- Tingling sensations in legs or arms
Prevent progression and treat the pain
While degenerative disc disease can’t be avoided, there are steps that can be taken to minimize or slow down its progression. Treating this condition includes:
- Increasing the strength and flexibility of the muscles that support the spine
- Maintaining a healthy weight in order to decrease wear-and tear on the spine
- Practicing healthy back movements such as lifting objects using leg muscles rather than back muscles
- Avoiding smoking, which decreases blood flow to the spine as well as the capacity to heal
At Pain Management and Injury Relief (PMIR) Medical Center, we use a number of treatment options for managing degenerative disc disease, including epidural steroid injections or facet joint blocks to decrease inflammation and relieve pain. Also, radiofrequency ablation is a procedure that deactivates certain nerves to interrupt the pain signals to the brain.
We also recommend supplementing your treatment at PMIR with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) options that include chiropractic care, acupuncture and massage, among other alternative therapies.
If you’d like to learn more about options for addressing degenerative disc disease, call Pain Management and Injury Relief at (877) 724-6349 to make an appointment today.