Degenerative disc disease is used to describe the normal changes in the spinal discs as one ages. The spinal discs are soft discs that separate the interlocking bones comprising the spine. They function as shock absorbers for the spine which allows it to bend and twist. The disease can occur throughout the spine but usually in the discs in the lower back and neck.
The alterations in the discs can result to neck or back pain and/or the following:
- Herniated disc
- Osteoarthritis which involves the breakdown of the tissue that protects and cushions the joints
- Spinal stenosis involves constriction of the spinal canal
Possible causes of degenerative disc disease
As one starts to age, the spinal discs deteriorate which leads to the disease in some individuals. The usual aging changes include the following:
- Fluid loss in the discs which diminishes the capacity of the discs to function as absorbers of shock and makes them less elastic. The discs also become thinner and constricts the space between the vertebrae.
- Small-sized cracks or tears in the exterior layer of the disc. The gel-like material within the disc might be driven out of these cracks which makes the disc protrude, rupture or fragment.
These are likely to occur among those who smoke and engage in physical activities particularly repeated heavy lifting.
What are the indications?
Degenerative disc disease can result to neck or back pain but tends to vary from one individual to another.
Many do not experience pain while others with the same degree of damage have intense pain that disrupts with activities. The location where the pain manifests depends on the site of the involved disc.
If a disc in the neck is affected, it can result to arm or neck pain. In case a disc in the lower back is involved, it can cause back pain as well as in the leg or buttock. Remember that the pain often worsens with movement such as reaching up, bending over or twisting.
The pain often starts after a significant injury, minor injury or normal movement. It can also occur in a gradual manner for no evident reason and worsens over time. In some instances, there is tingling or numbness in the arm or leg.
For pain relief, apply cold or heat on the affected area along with pain medications or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen or ibuprofen. The doctor might prescribe more potent drugs if needed.
If other health issues develop such as herniated disc, osteoarthritis or spinal stenosis, other treatment might be required. This includes exercises for strengthening and stretching the back and physiotherapy. In some cases, surgery is recommended. It involves the removal of the damaged disc.