What is degenerative disc disease?
Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of lower back pain and neck pain. The condition describes the weakening of one or more vertebral discs that cushions the spinal column. The degeneration usually occurs over time with aging but can be triggered or accelerated by injury.
As vertebral discs age, two things can happen at once to cause degeneration. One, the disc loses some of its water content, especially in the jelly-like nucleus, limiting its ability to function as a shock absorber. Second, aging discs can also develop tears in the fibrous outer wall, which allows the nucleus to press outward into the spinal column. Some of these tears develop scar tissue and heal, but are weakened and more susceptible to re-tearing. Injuries to the back can aggravate these naturally occurring conditions.
If the disc sustains enough damage, it can collapse, causing improper alignment for the vertebrae above and below the disc. If left untreated, bone spurs may develop along the afflicted vertebra. Spinal stenosis describes a condition when bone spurs grow in the spinal canal pinch the spinal cord and nerve roots, causing pain at the site of the injury.
Symptoms of degenerative disc disease
The primary symptom of degenerative disc disease is lower back pain and neck pain. Radiating weakness or numbness throughout the back and lower body, as well as pain and tingling in the legs, is also common. Most bending, twisting and sitting makes the pain worse, while lying down often relieves it.
Those who suffer from degenerative disc disease experience chronic pain, or baseline pain that occurs all the time, and acute flare-ups. Both types of pain can vary widely. Some patients can go from experiencing no pain at all to severe, disabling pain for months at a time.
Potential conditions resulting from disc degeneration
Degenerative disc disease can cause or exacerbate the following conditions:
• Herniated disc — The soft nucleus of the disk presses through a tear in the outer wall and into the spinal column, potentially compressing or irritating nerve roots
• Spinal stenosis — Bone spurs that grow into the spinal column, pressing on nerve roots
• Osteoarthritis — Pain caused by changes in the facet joints in the back of the spine
• Spondylolisthes — Damage to facet joints renders them ineffective, allowing a vertebra to slip forward or backward over the one below it
Treatment options for degenerative disc disease
As with most causes of back pain, the treatment for degenerative disc disease varies, and usually involves an individually tailored combination of the following:
• Pain medication — To control and reduce symptoms
• Epidural injections — Steroidal injections can decrease swelling and reduce pain
• TENS units — Deliver mild electrical stimulation that overrides pain signals