If we live long enough, we will all get degenerative disc disease to some degree. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the risk of having severe symptoms and, if we do develop symptoms of degenerative disc disease, there are many effective treatments.
Degenerative disc disease requires two things: 1) a breakdown (degeneration) of one or more vertebral discs 2) this breakdown causes pain or other symptoms.
Why are both necessary? Because virtually everyone will have some degree of disc degeneration at some point in their adult lives, but not everyone will experience symptoms because of it. Some people have severe disc degeneration and few symptoms. Others have very mild disc degeneration, but it causes severe symptoms. For these reasons, the timing and severity of degenerative disc disease often depends on the degree of degenerative disc disease symptoms, rather than the degree of actual degeneration in the vertebral disc(s).
Degenerative disc disease symptoms often include pain at or around the damaged disc. So, if a cervical vertebral disc causes symptoms, neck pain is often the prominent symptom. Likewise, lumbar disc disease often causes low back pain. Degenerative disc disease in the neck or lower back may cause shooting pains down the arms or legs, respectively. This occurs if the degenerative disc affects the spinal nerves or nerve roots. Pinched nerves can also cause odd sensations or weakness in the arms or legs. In some cases, pain may not be the most troublesome degenerative disc disease symptom; instead, the spine may simply feel stiff and immobile. Indeed, degenerative disc disease symptoms vary widely from person to person.
Unfortunately, simply living life is a cause of degenerative disc disease; vertebral discs suffer wear-and-tear over time from normal activities.
Research suggests the causes of degenerative disc disease are:
While most cases of neck and lower back pain will resolve within a few days, you can take steps to help relieve symptoms. Some degenerative disc disease treatments can be done at home, while others require a trip to the doctor.
Short-term pain caused by degenerative disc disease may resolve on its own with rest and ice. These conservative treatments reduce inflammation, deaden pain, and allow the structures around the disc to recover. Muscle spasms, on the other hand, tend to respond well to heat. In between events, back muscle strengthening, stretching, and physical therapy may help prevent pain.
Exercises that strengthen your “core” also strengthen the back and help protect the spine. In essence, activities that build the stomach and back muscles like swimming, yoga and Pilates will help work the core muscles. Importantly, while sit-ups and crunches help strengthen stomach muscles, they can also put substantial strain on the back. Before starting any new exercise program, speak with your doctor and an exercise professional.
Some people have found relief from degenerative disc disease symptoms after receiving therapeutic massage, acupuncture, or chiropractic care. Therapeutic massage mainly targets muscles, chiropractic mainly addresses joints, and acupuncture is based on principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Patients may choose to treat degenerative disc disease with injections before moving to surgery. Typically, a corticosteroid is injected near the damaged disc, which reduces local inflammation and reduces pain and other degenerative disc disease symptoms.
Degenerative disc disease surgery options include discectomy, spinal fusion surgery, and artificial disc replacement. Of note, a discectomy is performed during a spinal fusion or artificial disc replacement surgery.
Include bullet point list of questions your doctor might ask you somewhere
As mentioned, a degenerative disc disease diagnosis requires that damage to one or more vertebral discs is the cause of symptoms. While your doctor may order imaging of the spine, the key to getting a degenerative disc disease diagnosis comes mostly from history and physical examination.
Your spine surgeon will perform a focused physical examination to determine if you have degenerative disc disease. This may include range of motion, sensation, and muscle strength testing.
After your history and physical examination, your spine surgeon will decide if you need a CT scan and/or MRI to confirm or rule out any diagnoses.
Several doctors and medical professionals are capable of treating certain aspects of degenerative disc disease. Often, your primary care doctor is able to provide a list of conservative treatments that will be effective for most people. A physical therapist can guide you in a set of exercises and movements that may relieve degenerative disc disease symptoms.
Often the best person to consult about degenerative disc disease is a spine surgeon. Board-certified spine surgeons are either neurosurgeons or orthopedic surgeons by training. Spine surgeons are neck and back pain experts—they can distinguish degenerative disc disease from other causes of neck and back pain. Unlike other medical professionals, spine surgeons offer the entire range of degenerative disc disease treatments, from conservative treatments to injections to spine surgery.
How long does an artificial disc typically last?
The best degenerative disc disease treatment is the one that works for you. In other words, if inexpensive, conservative treatments like ice, heat, selective rest, and over-the-counter pain relief medicines work, then those are your best degenerative disc disease treatments. If these treatments fail, the best degenerative disc disease treatment options may be physical therapy, therapeutic massage, or prescription medications. Injections around the spine may provide relief from degenerative disc disease symptoms. Lastly, spinal fusion surgery or artificial disc replacement could be your best degenerative disc disease treatment option because they can be curative.
How can I prevent degenerative disc disease from getting worse?
You can’t change your genetics (yet!), but you can modify other risk factors for degenerative disc disease. While smoking may or may not contribute to degenerative disc disease, there are many other reasons to stop. Reducing cholesterol and body weight can combat atherosclerosis and obesity which, in turn, may reduce the risk of worsening degenerative disc disease. You can protect your neck by reducing handheld screen time or keeping your head in a neutral position when you use one (i.e., head held with your eyes looking straight in front of you, not down). Increasing your spinal muscle strength and flexibility can help stabilize your spine and reduce the risk of spinal injury.
Is degenerative disc disease hereditary?
Actually, yes. New research suggests that certain genes are associated with degenerative disc disease. While there currently isn’t a genetic test you can take to determine if you have degenerative disc disease; however, in the coming years we may have a genetic test that can provide you with your personal genetic risk for degenerative disc disease.
How are arthritis and degenerative disc disease different?
Arthritis is an inflammation of spinal facet joints while degenerative disc disease is a breakdown of the vertebral disc that causes symptoms. Degenerative disc disease may lead to osteoarthritis of the spine, but the two conditions affect different structures.
Can I become paralyzed by degenerative disc disease?
Yes, but it is highly unlikely. Degenerative disc disease usually progresses rather slowly, so symptoms appear long before paralysis could occur. That said, if degenerative disc disease contributes to a disc herniation, especially one that occurs from trauma, paralysis is possible. Warning signs for possible paralysis are sudden loss of bowel or bladder function or rapid onset or worsening back pain, weakness, or numbness. Any person who experiences these symptoms should be evaluated by a trained medical professional as soon as possible.
How fast does degenerative disc disease progress?
Usually slowly, over 20 to 30 years. However, injury or trauma can speed up the degenerative process.