Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease at a glance
- Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a chronic condition that occurs when the discs between the vertebrae bones begin to break down, causing pain in the neck and lower back.
- Younger and middle-aged adults are more likely to experience pain associated with DDD.
- Exact causes of DDD are still undetermined, but these soft discs begin to break down as a natural result of aging, with genetics and smoking also contributing factors.
- Treating DDD usually starts conservatively with physical therapy or pain medications; surgery is rarely used and only if a patient does not respond to any other treatments.
What is degenerative disc disease?
The spine is made up of stacked vertebrae and between each vertebra is a disc, which is a spongy cushion that absorbs shock and keeps the vertebrae bones from rubbing together. Degenerative disc disease (DDD) occurs when the discs are damaged and begin to erode, dry out and shrink. This erosion causes chronic pain in the neck and lower back. DDD is more accurately classified as a condition than disease.
DDD is one of the most common causes of lower back and neck pain. Once the discs begin to wear, they will continue to do so with age. As the discs degenerate, they can cause osteoarthritis, facet hyperthrophy (enlarged facet joints in the spine) and spinal stenosis.
Young adults and middle-aged individuals who are active and in good health are generally the most common demographic diagnosed with DDD. An MRI will be able to detect DDD.
Causes and symptoms of degenerative disc disease
The cause of DDD is still undetermined, but age and injury or trauma are certainly contributing factors. Osteoporosis and arthritis may also contribute to worsening pain in the spinal discs. Genetic predispositions and smoking may also increase the risk of DDD. Spinal discs naturally break down during the aging process, but the symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary greatly from patient to patient. And although nobody can avoid aging, not everybody develops degenerative disc disease symptoms.
Pain often begins following trauma to the back or neck. Spinal discs do not have a good supply of blood, so if injured, they are unable to repair fully. The primary symptom of degenerative disc disease is pain that occurs when the neck or back moves. This pain may emerge during flare-ups then disappear.
Treating degenerative disc disease
DDD is not reversible, but there are several treatments that will alleviate pain and allow the patient to participate in activities with minimal pain. Treatment usually begins with physical therapy and customized plans depending on the patient’s case.
Exercise is actually quite beneficial for pain management. A physical therapist can teach patients proper lifting and exercise techniques that will strength the back as well as increase spine flexibility. Losing excess weight will also help in overall joint health.
An orthopedist may prescribe muscle relaxers or other pain medications to treat and manage the symptoms of DDD. Surgery for DDD is not typically recommended unless the back and neck are not responding to any other treatment. A spinal fusion surgery joins one or more vertebrae together with the attempt to bring stability to the spine.