Degenerative disc disease describes symptoms that can occur from the normal aging process of spinal discs. Spinal discs are soft, pliable structures that separate each vertebra and connect them to one another. They act as shock absorbers for the spine, allowing it to bend and flex.
Degenerative disc disease occurs from loss of fluid in the discs. When the fluid level decreases, so does the ability of the disc to act as a shock absorber. Tears in the spinal disc can also reduce its size. The reduction in size causes more friction between vertebrae, and the body reacts by producing bone spurs.
Bone spurs can cause pressure on the spinal nerve roots, leading to pain and other complications. Since any spinal disc could be affected, signs of possible degenerative disc disease vary.
Wellness & Prevention
Degenerative disc disease can be painful and may make simple tasks challenging. Bending down, reaching and other basic movements can be very difficult for people with degenerative spine conditions. There are many ways that disc disease can occur, though most of them have to do with the normal aging process. Risk factors for degenerative disc disease include:
- Normal aging
- Repetitive strain or lifting
- Obesity or malnutrition
- Smoking and drug use
- Falling or physical trauma may begin the degeneration process
As degenerative disc disease occurs mainly from aging, it can be a difficult condition to prevent. However, making the right lifestyle choices may lower your risk of symptoms appearing. These changes include maintaining a healthy weight and diet, stopping smoking and lifting heavy objects carefully.
Confirming a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease can be hard, as the disease can create many other problems that may mask their underlying cause.
To confirm a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, the following diagnostic tests may be performed:
- Physical Tests: Your doctor will examine your posture, flexibility and range of motion to evaluate your physical health before any other tests are done
- X-ray: X-ray imaging of the spine can be used to pinpoint narrowed disc space, fractures, bone spurs and arthritis
- Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: CT imaging can be used to evaluate bone structures and detect any abnormalities
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Scan: MRI imaging can be used to detect bulging discs, herniation and nerve root compression
- Discography: Discography can be used to determine which disc is causing pain by injecting a contrast dye into the discs
- Bone Scan: A computer scanner is used in this test to detect signs of arthritis, fracture, or infection with a small chemical injection that collects in the bones
When treating the spine, a combination of treatments can often lead to the most effective results. Degenerative disc disease can be treated through active or passive treatments. Active treatments are performed by the individual, while passive treatments are performed on the individual by a professional. Although passive treatments are extremely beneficial, they cannot be used alone; a combination of active and passive treatments must be used together for the best treatment results.
Active treatments will be performed by the individual, and typically include:
- Losing weight to reduce pressure on the spine and vertebrae
- Rehabilitation under the guidance of a physical therapist who can train the person in exercises and therapies to reduce pain and manage symptoms
- Ergonomic support for the back during exercise or while lifting heavy objects
- Ending habits like smoking or drug use
Passive treatments are performed by doctors or medical professionals, and include:
- Chiropractic care to restore range of motion, reduce pain and mobilize the joints
- Massage therapy to improve blood flow and calm the nervous system
- Electrical stimulation or ultrasound therapy to relax the muscles and relieve pain
- Prescription of pain-relieving medication for symptoms that can’t be managed with other options
Because the spine is highly complex, each diagnosis of degenerative disc disease will be unique. With so many components, factors and possibilities in spine care, it’s important to create individualized treatment plans based on each person’s needs. Individualized treatment plans lead to more effective treatment and more successful outcomes.
As with other spinal conditions, much of the treatment aftercare will rely on management of symptoms and preventing of further problems. People with degenerative disc disease may need to wear support garments to keep their spine aligned, or undergo regular sessions of physical therapy.
While degenerative disc disease is a normal part of aging, the accompanying pain and symptoms can be difficult to manage. People will need support and care from their loved ones to help them perform their daily activities with a compromised spine. With the right support and treatment for their back, people may see a big reduction in pain and much higher quality of life.