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Degenerative Disc Disease

About Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease is a very common part of the normal aging process that occurs from wear and tear in the discs between each of your spinal vertebrae. In a healthy spine the intervertebral disc acts as a shock absorber between the vertebra, permitting a normal level of flexibility. As a person gets older the discs change, resulting in drying out, thinning, or cracking. When these changes occur the soft cartilage core may bulge out through the disc. The term degenerative disc disease refers to these age related changes.

Over time it is normal that most people’s spinal discs will degenerate. Most of the time degeneration of the spinal discs will not cause pain, which is referred to as just degeneration. There are, however, nerves within the disc that may become irritated as a result of the degeneration and lead to back pain. Degenerative disc disease refers to disc degeneration that causes pain.

Common Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary based on the location and type of disc degeneration. The primary symptoms include sharp and/or persistent pain in the neck or back. Extremity pain, sensory loss, or weakness may develop if there is displacement of the disc into the channel occupied by the spinal cord or nerves.

Often the degeneration of the disc is associated with an exaggerated growth of bone, known as a bone spur, as the body attempts to stabilize the degenerated spine. If the bone spurs take up room needed by the spinal cord and/or nerves, these structures may become compressed and cause pain, sensory loss, or weakness of the arms and/or legs.

Diagnosis of Degenerative Disc Disease

The following tests may be ordered if a patient is expressing symptoms of degenerative disc disease:

  • X-rays – provide details of the bone structures in the spine.
  • Magnetic resonance (MR) imaging – provides a detailed image of discs to see how the nerves and spinal canal are affected by degenerative disc disease.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan – provides a detailed image of bone structures in the spine.

Treatment Options for Degenerative Disc Disease

Treatment options will vary based on the severity of the condition. Most cases are not severe enough to require surgery. Some nonoperative measures include:

  • Heat/ice therapy
  • Modification of daily activity
  • Pain or steroid medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Epidural injections

If a patient is not responsive to these options surgery may be required. A discectomy is a surgical procedure used to remove the disc that is compressing the spinal cord and or nerves. Removal of the damaged disc relieves the pressure and should improve symptoms related to nerve compression. This however, may not improve neck or back pain that is the result of the degenerative process.

If pain is thought to be due to the degenerative process or the spine becomes unstable during a nerve decompression procedure, a spinal fusion may be needed to maintain spinal stability. In this procedure metallic devices stabilize the spine and bone graft material is applied to encourage bone growth across the affected spinal segments.