Spinal discs are like soft, compressible shock absorbers between the bones of your spine. Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is not actually a disease; it’s a term used to describe a level of wear and tear on spinal discs as they age, and it can cause pain and affect nerve function. DDD can occur throughout your 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 disc’s outer layer: 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 sports activities can cause swelling, soreness, and instability.
Symptoms of DDD
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 disc in the lower back may result in pain in the back, buttock, or leg. As a degenerated 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 (but is not limited to):
- 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.
Diagnosing degenerative disc disease generally begins with a physical exam to check the range of motion in your neck and lower back. Your pain specialist will also check your reflexes and your muscles’ strength to discern if pressure is 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 and lower back, 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.
Pain from degenerative disc disease can sometimes be self-managed by scheduling rest periods, using heat or cold therapy, doing exercises that can boost strength and reduce stiffness, and taking over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen. At PMIR Medical Center, we offer treatment options for degenerative disc disease that include: