What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is the most common cause of neck and low back pain and typically affects your cervical or lumbar spine.
This condition affects your back strength and develops due to common wear and tear or spinal injuries. Your discs, located between the vertebrae of the spine, act as cushions and shock absorbers and help you perform everyday activities. Once a disc is injured, it cannot repair itself.
You may not experience any symptoms as your discs degenerate, and the amount of pain you feel from DDD does not correlate with how degraded your discs are. Some may experience mild but continuous pain, while others will experience severe, disabling pain at the same level of disc degeneration. DDD can lead to spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, spondylolisthesis, herniated discs, and scoliosis if left untreated. Learn more about DDD in the video below.
Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment Options
- Heat or cold therapy
- Neck and back stretches, yoga, functional mobility, or strength training
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit
- Epidural steroid injections
- Physical therapy
- Surgery: If none of the non-surgical treatment options reduce or eliminate your pain, your medical professional may suggest surgery.
- Medication: Over-the-counter (OTC) medication such as acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce pain, and NSAIDs can help reduce inflammation. Over-the-counter creams such as Biofreeze, Lidocaine, and Voltaren can help relieve pain. Your doctor may prescribe you pain medication if OTC medications do not provide pain relief.
You can prevent signs of Degnerative Disc Disease by maintaining proper posture, using ergonomic furniture to support the spine, and regularly stretching your neck and back. Car accidents, being overweight or obese, and living a sedentary lifestyle can also increase your risk for developing DDD.
Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease
The most common symptom of DDD is mild but continuous pain around the degenerating disc that may flare up into more severe pain.
Some living with DDD may not experience any symptoms, but symptoms can include:
- Pain when bending, twisting the spine, or lifting something
- Spinal instability and decreased mobility
- Muscle tension or spasms
- Sharp, stabbing, or hot pain in your shoulders, arms, hands, hips, buttocks, or legs
- Increased pain while in certain positions, such as sitting or standing
Before visiting your medical professional, try to keep a symptom diary to track how often and severe your symptoms are. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, your medical history, any medications you take, if trauma to the neck or back occurred, and what you have already tried to reduce the pain. They will also conduct a physical exam to check for any spine abnormalities and examine your range of motion. Your doctor may order diagnostic tests such as:
- Nerve conduction studies
Age is one of the greatest risk factors for Degenerative Disc Disease, as it’s primarily caused by the wear and tear of spinal discs.
This condition does not always lead to pain, but typically pain stems from:
- Abnormal micromotion instability: Caused by the degeneration of the disc’s outer layer that leads to small, unnatural motions between the vertebrae, causing tension and irritation in the surrounding areas
- Tears in the outer portion of the disc caused by repetitive movements or trauma
- Inflamed disc
- Fluid loss in discs
Almost everyone experiences disc degeneration after age 40, but only 5% of these people will experience back pain.
As your discs degenerate, they become more susceptible to herniation.