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With aging, discs in the spine gradually lose water. As they do, they become less flexible and lose some of their height. They may develop small tears and may bulge out or even collapse. This causes the vertebrae in the spine to become unstable, leading to pain. Degenerative disc disease may also be associated with other problems in the spine as a part of the degenerative process. Degenerative disc disease most commonly involves discs of the neck and lower back.
(Includes ACDs and corpectomies)
More common with age
Although the actual disc degeneration starts as early as adolescence.
Over time, the effects of frequent lifting and bending will cause minor damage to discs. Most people over the age of 60 have some degree of disc deterioration, although not all experience pain.
People who do a lot of lifting and bending and who participate in sports are more likely to experience disc damage, and any type of repetitive motion or injury to the spine increases the risk. Smoking is also a risk factor for degenerative disc disease.
Some people showing degenerative changes on X-rays and imaging studies have few symptoms, while others are symptomatic with only minor abnormalities evident on an X-ray.
The classic symptom of degenerative disc disease is pain. If the damage is in the lumbar area, the pain usually occurs in the lower back and may radiate into the legs (sciatica). When the damage is located in the cervical spine, degenerative disc disease can cause pain within the neck.
People with degenerative disc disease usually suffer from intermittent pain. They may also have a chronic low level of pain that flares up with certain activities such as twisting, bending, or lifting. Prolonged sitting can make the pain worse, and many people with degenerative disc disease feel better when walking around.
In more severe cases, there can be numbness and tingling in the hands or feet or weakness in the extremities. This happens when nerve roots exiting the spinal cord are irritated or damaged, or when the spinal cord is compressed.
A thorough clinical exam is important since there are so many conditions that can cause neck or back pain. X-rays of the cervical or lumbar spine may provide limited help in determining the diagnosis, but an MRI is typically much more useful.
Pain from degenerative disc disease may improve with conservative treatment. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications and muscle relaxants may reduce the pain of degenerative disc disease. For more severe cases, an epidural injection into the spine may help.
An exercise program to strengthen the muscles in the neck and back combined with stretching exercises are important components is the treatment of degenerative disc disease. Reducing the stress on the spine by using proper lifting techniques is also an important factor. In more severe cases that do not respond to conservative treatment, surgery may be required.
Vanessa had years of neck pain leaving her unable to even do her daily work. But with Dr. Wascher’s quick and timely intervention that included multiple viewings of MRIs, muscle and nerve tests, followed by a 3-Level Anterior Cervical Fusion, she is now happy without any neck issues. “I can happily say that by following the recommendations of Dr. Wascher, I am now pain-free,” says Vanessa as she talks about how great Dr. Wascher and his team were to work with.
When Nanette experienced deep pain in her shoulder, she got tests performed only to discover that she in fact had issues with her neck instead. After a few MRIs and scans, she contacted Dr. Wascher, who told her that she has bone spurs going into the spinal cord. Within a span of 3 weeks, she was able to go through surgery and get on the road to recovery. “I cannot say enough about Dr. Wascher’s expertise and empathy”, says Nanette as she joins an ever-growing community of people who, through Dr. Wascher and his team, have found happiness again.