Over the course of a lifetime, most people will experience some degeneration in their spinal discs, but not all of them will experience pain as a result. If you do, it’s a sign you have Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD). When patients first learn about this condition, they worry about their future pain levels and want to know how quickly the degeneration can progress. However, there is no set timeline. Some people live with mild pain symptoms that can easily be managed with stretching and temperature therapy. Other patients start out experiencing a small twinge of pain, only to have it develop into numbness and throbbing down to their toes, or have severe enough pain from the progression of DDD that they quickly get to the point of surgical intervention.
Knowledge is one of your best weapons against DDD. If you understand your condition and work with a professional spinal expert to treat it, you can reduce your pain levels and catch problems before they cause severe pain.
Don’t ignore back pain – your body is trying to tell you that it needs help. Learn more about DDD, how it progresses, and how expert spinal doctors can treat it.
How Degenerative Disc Disease Occurs
Each of the vertebrae in your spine is cushioned by rubbery discs. When you bend, twist, and move throughout the day, these discs prevent your vertebrae from knocking or rubbing together. However, they can start to wear down over time – and can even break or get pushed out of place. Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is the term used to describe spinal discs that are no longer able to perform their function.
DDD is caused by a number of factors, but most of them are out of your control. One of the most common causes of DDD is age-related wear and tear. Our bodies wear down over time, and your spinal discs are no exception. This degenerative disc wear can be accelerated by health and lifestyle factors, and also by a genetic predisposition to joint pain. If you have a previous spinal injury, you may be at risk of developing DDD in that area.
In a way, you can think of your spinal discs like brake pads in a car. They are made to withstand pressure and use. However, age and lifestyle factors may cause them to wear out and need to be replaced.
The Pattern of Degenerative Disc Disease Progression
Patients seek medical care at different stages of DDD progression, in part because every patient experiences back pain differently. However, there are a few common warning signs when DDD is starting to present itself. The first is back pain. The pain can start out small and will come and go. Patients might assume that pain is a natural part of aging or think they tweaked a back muscle unexpectedly, leading them to ignore the issue.
The next sign is discomfort that radiates from its initial position. Depending on the location of the damaged disc, patients may notice that pain radiates into their shoulders and arms or down their legs. The pain can become more persistent and can present itself as a consistent, dull throb or shooting pains that occur unexpectedly.
This progression is usually when patients realize that their pain isn’t a small problem and that they need help. Some people ask for help when moving first becomes painful, while, sadly, other patients wait until the discomfort is so bad they can’t work and can barely move.
Long-term Outcomes of Degenerative Disc Disease
DDD can leave patients in pain and reduce their mobility and even lead to other spinal conditions that make it difficult to enjoy life. The spine is like a carefully-crafted sculpture. If something falls out of place, then other bones, nerves, and joints will be affected. Below are a few conditions that patients can develop if they let their DDD go untreated.
Osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of spinal discs and cartilage that protects your spine. This causes your joints to swell and become incredibly painful. While osteoarthritis is painful enough on its own, this condition can cause bone spurs (hard bumps of extra bone that grow on top of existing vertebrae). These bone spurs – also called osteophytes – can protrude into your nerve canal and cause pain to radiate through your body.
Spinal osteoarthritis is most common in people who are older. However, young people can develop this condition if they experience trauma or injury to the joint or if they are genetically predisposed to arthritis.
Osteoporosis occurs when bones become weak and brittle to the point where they start to break down. Your bone matter is constantly being replaced, and osteoporosis occurs when your body can’t provide new bone replacements as older bone matter wears away.
Not only are your spinal discs at risk of wearing down over time, but your vertebrae can become damaged – especially if osteoporosis makes them brittle. Even mild stresses can cause a fracture. Coughing, bending over, or even a mild fall can result in broken bones if you have this condition.
DDD not only causes pain in your spinal discs and vertebrae but also in your nerve canal. Your spine is a superhighway of nerves that transmit information to and from your brain. When you stub your toe, you feel pain because your nerves send warning signals to your brain.
Spinal stenosis is a shrinking of the space in the backbone, which puts pressure on your spinal cord and nerve canal. As a result, patients can experience a variety of symptoms like numbness in their arms and legs – signs that the nerves can’t communicate information. They may experience tingling or pain in their extremities, along with muscle weakness.
Spinal stenosis is caused by natural wear and tear in the spine. If you experience DDD and arthritis, then you are at risk of developing this condition.
As your spinal discs start to weaken through DDD, your vertebrae may start to move out of place. This is called degenerative spondylolisthesis. Degenerative refers to the breaking down of the spine and spinal discs. Spondylos refers to the spine or vertebrae, while listhesis means sliding or slipping.
While spondylolisthesis is frequently an age-related condition, it is also found in younger athletes who are experiencing growth spurts. Some patients are also genetically prone to this condition and other degenerative diseases.
How many stages are there to degenerative disc disease?
There are four total stages of DDD and each progresses in its own time. Some patients stay in the first stage for several years and only experience mild pain levels. Other patients quickly enter the later stages, depending on their genetics and past spinal trauma. Get to know the four stages to understand your own condition.
Dysfunction: the worn or broken discs reach a point where they can no longer support the spine. Patients start to notice mild to moderate pain where the affected disc is located.
Dehydration: the affected discs continue to degrade and pain starts to worsen. Some patients may develop other conditions (like osteoarthritis or spinal stenosis) because of the damaged disc.
Stabilization: in this stage, the body attempts to repair itself because of the broken disc. Bone spurs can start to form and you may start to lose mobility.
Collapsing: the discs can no longer function and may become herniated. Patients with osteoporosis may be at risk of fractures in the affected area.
Your body wants to hold on to its functions for as long as possible, but the continued wear and pressure on your affected discs will eventually cause them to break down. The farther you get into each stage of DDD, the more your pain levels will rise and the harder it will be to move.
Can you stop degenerative disc disease from getting worse?
You cannot stop degenerative disc disease entirely. However, you can take steps to slow the wear of your spinal discs while lowering your pain levels. If you are diagnosed with this condition, your doctor should give you clear steps on living with DDD. A few ways you can reduce the effects of this condition include:
Practice stretching each day. Your doctor will suggest stretches and physical therapy exercises for your back.
Improve your posture. Avoid sitting hunched over a desk each day and evaluate your posture while standing.
Take up low-impact exercises. Ask your doctor for recommendations, but certain exercises like swimming, biking, and pilates can build your muscles while taking pressure off your spine.
Improve your diet and lifestyle. Eat healthy portioned meals, quit smoking, avoid excessive use of alcohol, and prioritize your sleep hygiene.
If these basic changes don’t reduce your pain levels, your doctor may recommend other interventions. They may suggest anti-inflammation medication or hot and cold therapy.
If the disc is damaged and painful to the point of interfering with your life, it may need to be removed and replaced. Surgery is never the first option recommended by doctors – even though disc replacement is low-risk and frequently generates positive results. However, if non-invasive treatments won’t reduce your pain levels, it may be time to intervene surgically in your spine.
Reach Out to Dr. Lanman if You Live in Pain
Your doctor should be a partner to help you treat DDD. Without the support of a medical professional, your pain levels could increase and you could cause further damage to your spine. Dr. Lanman will support you every step of the way, no matter the state of your spinal discs, to determine the best course of action for your unique case. You don’t have to live with pain – make an appointment for a consultation today, and take the first step towards living without spinal pain.
Dr. Todd H. Lanman is the founder of the Advanced Disc Replacement Spinal Restoration Center, and a leading spinal neurologist who regularly treats professional athletes, A-list celebrities, and C-Suite executives to restore their mobility and eliminate their spinal pain
Request a consultation with Dr. Lanman today and take the first steps to control your degenerative disc disease.