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Degenerative disc disease information

Degenerative disc disease describes the natural deterioration process of the discs in the spine — a common condition among older adults.

Because degenerative disc disease has such a broad definition, it often acts as a category for the following disc conditions in the spine:

Degenerative discs often develop later in life as the result of a series of lifestyle choices that have weakened the disc, as well as the natural aging process. Understanding what causes degenerative disc disease can help you make daily choices to promote overall health in your spinal discs.

Causes of degenerative disc disease

As the name suggests, degenerative disc disease is caused by the natural degeneration process of the spine. Over the years, the components of the spine undergo daily stress and changes, causing the spine to slowly weaken and deteriorate. While there are many prevention methods to help you maintain a healthy spine, there are some forms of deterioration that cannot be fully prevented.

Disc deterioration can be caused by a number of age-related factors, such as weight gain, continual body movement and disc dehydration.

The discs in the spine act as shock absorbers for the vertebrae, cushioning any hard impact from walking, running, bending or twisting. Discs in the lumbar spine (lower back) undergo the most stress of any area of the spine because the lower back supports and stabilizes the majority of the body’s weight. Therefore, years of weight gain and inactivity adds pressure to the lumbar spine, causing the vertebrae to compress and weaken the discs.

Additionally, constant movements such as bending and twisting squeeze the discs between the vertebrae. While not moving is not an option for an active lifestyle, small changes like maintaining a healthy weight and strengthening your core muscles will help relieve pressure on the discs.

One factor of disc deterioration that is slightly less controllable is disc dehydration. Discs naturally dehydrate with age, causing them to weaken and become susceptible to bulging or collapsing.

When degenerative disc disease develops, the damaged disc or resulting spinal instability could cause one of the nearby nerve roots to become compressed or pinched. This can result in serious pain and symptoms that may inhibit your everyday activities and quality of life if left untreated.

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease

The symptoms of degenerative disc disease are common to many other spine conditions because the symptoms do not originate from the damaged disc itself, but from the pinched nerve caused by the damaged disc.

These symptoms vary from person to person, but often involve some of the following:

  • Pain (local or radiating)
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Burning sensation
  • Limited mobility
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention)

These symptoms can develop at the site of the degenerative disc and pinched nerve or travel throughout the nerve pathways into other areas of the body.

For example, a degenerative disc in the lower back that compresses the sciatic nerve (the largest nerve in the body) could produce symptoms that travel from the lower back, down the buttocks and into the legs and feet.

Diagnosing degenerative disc disease

If you’ve been experiencing these symptoms for several weeks, you should consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis of what is causing your pain.

Your doctor will likely ask you questions about your symptoms, such as when they began and if anything makes them better or worse, among others. He or she will also perform a physical evaluation to locate the source of your pain. This will involve pressing against different areas of the spine and nerve pathways to narrow down the location of the damaged disc within your spine.

Once the location of your condition is determined, your doctor will order an MRI or CT scan to properly view your spine and what is compressing your nerve. If a degenerative disc disease diagnosis is made, your doctor can recommend a series of conservative treatments that are often effective methods of pain relief.

Conservative treatments for degenerative disc disease

For many people, a series of conservative, nonsurgical treatments effectively reduces the symptoms of degenerative disc disease. While these treatments do not heal the disc itself, they work to relieve the symptoms while the disc naturally heals through the resorption process — the process by which the body absorbs pieces of a damaged disc in order to start the healing process.

Common conservative treatments for degenerative disc disease include:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Limited rest
  • Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and diet
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Water aerobics
  • Chiropractic care
  • Corticosteroid injections

If these treatments are ineffective after several months, you may require surgery for pain relief.

Surgery for degenerative disc disease

While the type of spine surgery you are recommended will depend on the type of disc degeneration in your spine, patients with degenerative disc disease are often recommended for a discectomy procedure.

During a discectomy, a small portion of the damaged disc is removed to relieve pressure from the pinched nerve. In some cases, the entire disc is removed and either a metal cage is inserted for a fusion (in a traditional fusion procedure) or an artificial disc is inserted into the empty disc space (in a minimally invasive procedure at Laser Spine Institute).

Our minimally invasive spine surgery is an alternative to traditional open neck or back surgery that has many advantages, like a smaller incision and muscle-sparing techniques.

Find out if you’re a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery at Laser Spine Institute by requesting a no-cost MRI review* from our team today. We can help you discover your treatment options and take the next step toward pain relief.