What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease refers to changes that occur to spinal discs with aging. Discs in the spine are important for absorbing the shock of bending and moving. 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.

Causes

Degenerative disc disease becomes 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.

Symptoms

Some people showing degenerative changes on X-rays and imaging studies have few symptoms, while others are symptomatic with only minor indicators showing 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 upper thighs. 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.

Diagnosis

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.

Treatment

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.