Degenerative Disc Disease

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What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is characterized by weakening of the vertebral disc. The disc loses the ability to act as a cushion between the vertebrae leading to multiple conditions that can create back or neck pain. Degenerative disc disease can develop as part of the normal aging process, or be a result of an injury to the spine.

What are the causes?

Small tears in the disc wall, or annulus, can develop as part of the aging process or by a traumatic injury. The tears heal leaving scar tissue that is not as strong as the original wall. This process repeats itself until the disc is weakened significantly. The jelly-like center of the disc or nucleus slowly losses its water content and no longer acts as a shock absorber for the spine. The nucleus can eventually collapse sliding the vertebrae together, causing improper alignment of the facet joints and vertebrae. In time, this improper alignment will cause bone spurs to grow from the facet joints and vertebrae. The bone spurs can grow into the spinal canal leading to pinching of the nerve roots and spinal cord (otherwise known as spinal stenosis).

What are the symptoms?

The weakening of the annulus and the collapse of the nucleus causes band-like back pain when present in the lumbar (lower) spine. Degenerative disc disease in the cervical (upper) spine causes midline neck pain that can radiate to the upper back and shoulders. If spinal stenosis develops from the degenerative disc disease, patients may feel back pain radiating into the legs, or neck pain radiating into the arms. There may be numbness in the arms and legs as well. Prolonged sitting, standing, driving, walking and changes in weather may lead to flare-ups of pain.

What treatments are available?

Treatment options may include anti-inflammatory medications, pain medications, physical therapy, and epidural steroid injections. Performing an exercise program for the back and neck to stabilize the spine can help prevent degenerative disc disease. Most people will get prolonged relief from these treatments. If the pain persists, surgery may be needed to address the appropriate pain eliciting condition.

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