July 11, 2022

An Overview of Degenerative Disc Disease

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) sounds like a rather scary diagnosis. Diseases are oftentimes seen as incurable, long, painful things, and when it comes to your spine, none of that sounds comfortable. Luckily, degenerative disc disease, despite its daunting name, is not a disease at all.

In fact, it is normal to develop signs of spinal disc degeneration with age - just like obtaining more wrinkles on your skin, or the slowing of metabolism. The natural wear-and-tear of the spine originates from a life full of activity and movement. According to an article published by Columbia University Irving Medical Center Neurosurgery, by the age of 35, three out of ten adults show evidence of disc degeneration, and by age 60, more than 90% of people do.

The term ‘degenerative disc disease’ specifically applies only to times when the degeneration causes pain via the spinal disc wear-down. Acting as a shock-pad to absorb and alleviate impact and pressure, your rubbery, cushion-like spinal discs wear down with age and use, making it more difficult to move, bend, twist, and use your body the way you might have when you were younger. The pain begins to become more noticeable when the cushion layer thins enough that the vertebrae start to rub together in a form of osteoarthritis.

5 Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease:

While no one looks forward to the idea of experiencing degenerative disc disease, there are steps you can take at any stage of life to try to impede or avoid the pain factor of spinal disc degeneration. There are plenty of signs the body puts out to indicate that the spinal discs have worn down enough to be categorized as DDD, so look out for the following symptoms to potentially bring up to your doctor if your pain persists.

1. Pain in the neck and/or lower back

Degenerative disc disease can happen between any set of spinal vertebrae, but the pain most often manifests in the upper or lower sections due to a higher level of manual use throughout your lifetime. Especially in sports or manual labor careers, the risk of DDD becomes heightened as a result of more intense and consistent use.

2. Pain while sitting, bending, listing, or twisting

In certain positions, vertebrae are more at risk for being situated in a way that irritates the degenerative discs and causes bone-on-bone osteoarthritis pain. A sedentary lifestyle can also contribute to degenerative disc disease, which is why lifestyle is important for prevention.

3. A varied pain affliction where the pain is relieved while walking or lying down

Some activities can ease the pain temporarily, but this can become especially harmful if the problem is never addressed and this alleviation leads to a more sedentary lifestyle. Treatment is critical to slow the degeneration and keep the pain away on a more permanent basis without a change in lifestyle.

4. Numbness or tingling in the extremities

If degenerated enough, nerve damage can become a factor in pain levels, with the spread to the extremities such as the arms, legs, hands, and feet, or a tingling, numb feeling called paresthesia. This, again, is a shifting pain that comes and goes, but if left unaddressed, may develop further into a more persistent problem.

5. Leg weakness or foot drop

Going hand in hand with nerve damage, muscle weakness in the legs and/or feet can be a big symptom of DDD. Foot drop is a common term used to describe the weakness of muscles used to lift the front of the foot, leading to a limp and drag of the toes when walking.

4 Ways to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease:

If the diagnosis of degenerative disc disease shows up in your life or the life of a loved one, all is not lost. The degeneration does not have to keep advancing, and pain can be eased by a variety of longer-term solutions. Some options to manage - or even reverse, in certain cases - can include:

1. Physical Therapy (PT)

Working with an experienced physical therapist will help you pinpoint pain locations and create goals and exercises designed to offer relief. Oftentimes PT routines designed to address degenerative disc disease focus on strengthening and improving flexibility and mobility of muscles in the back and neck. With this countermeasure designed to specifically target affected areas, pain can be highly reduced.

2. Over the Counter Pain Relievers/Anti-Inflammatory drugs

For non-debilitating cases, sometimes pain relievers such as acetaminophen products (Tylenol, Paracetamol, and Panadol) or nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil, ibuprofen products (Advil or Motrin), and naproxen sodium products (Aleve) can relieve the pain caused by DDD.

3. Corticosteroid injections

A powerful anti-inflammatory medication can mitigate nerve swelling and inflammation around the affected area, and corticosteroid injections target the problem areas directly. Corticosteroids are naturally produced hormones that are synthesized in a lab and then applied to your body to prevent your natural inflammation-guard from overworking and causing more pain. This is a short-term solution, and additional injections will often need to be scheduled based on pain return within 6 weeks to 6 months.

4. Surgery

Long-term solutions are often surgical in nature, with the most popular options being artificial disc replacement and spinal fusions. Artificial disc replacement renews that height between vertebrae to keep the bones from grinding together, while spinal fusions stabilize and immobilize the joint between the two vertebrae causing pain.

3 Ways to Prevent Degenerative Disc Disease:

The reality of pain from degenerative disc disease is not a reality for everyone. A healthy lifestyle and preventative measures go a long way in escaping neck and back pain later in life when signs of degenerative discs naturally arise. Some measures and small changes in your life can make all the difference in the development of DDD, and you can try:

1. Therapy

For first-sign or unrelated back pain, heat therapy, cold therapy, and at-home physical therapy exercises offer benefits that extend far beyond DDD. Targeting pain when it first arises is a decisive prevention of pain later.

2. Lifestyle Adjustment: Food, Habits, and Exercise

Taking care of your body as a whole can prevent a whole slew of health problems that develop with age, DDD included. Not smoking or drinking heavily, exercising (even lightly) a few hours per week, and choosing to eat whole grains, leafy greens, fruits, healthy fats, and lean proteins keep muscles in use and provided with all the necessary vitamins and minerals to stay healthy and strong. Weight also plays a big factor in the amount of impact and stress that spinal discs work to mitigate.

3. Modified, Low-Impact Activities

Modified activities that cater to back safety and low aggravation can also help in keeping your spinal discs from overworking and degenerating early. Activities such as swimming, stretching, yoga, aerobics classes, or just walking have shown to be low-stress activities for a long, prosperous spinal disc life.

If you are experiencing degenerative disc disease, or back pain that is not going away, you may benefit from seeking out qualified medical attention. Dr. Venu Vemuri, at miiSpine, is an award-winning physician focused on providing an innovative and comprehensive treatment approach towards all types of back conditions and pain. For additional information or to schedule an appointment, call the Louisville, Kentucky miiSpine office today at: (502) 242-6370.

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