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Understanding Degenerative Disk Disease


Degenerative disk disease, more commonly spelled as degenerative disc disease, is an age-related condition that affects millions of people around the world. Although not always symptomatic, degenerative disk disease can result in crippling pain if it contributes to spinal narrowing and nerve compression. If you’ve been diagnosed with this condition, a better understanding of degenerative disk disease can help you as you seek treatment and lasting relief. 

As you take some time to review the following information, we welcome you to reach out to us with any questions or if you’d like to learn more about treatment. The USA Spine Care team is here to help. 

Basic spinal anatomy and the spinal discs

The first step to understanding degenerative disk disease is understanding the role that the discs play in the spinal column. The spinal discs are round disc-shaped pieces of soft tissue, made primarily of cartilage. They are made of a tough outer layer and a softer inner layer filled with viscous disc fluid. 

Healthy discs separate the individual vertebrae in the spinal column, acting as shock absorbers and allowing the spine to bend and flex. However, over time the discs dry out like other parts of the body and lose elasticity. This makes them less able to withstand the pressure they are put under on a daily basis. 

Degenerative disk disease causes and symptoms

Degenerative disk disease is characterized by loss of disc height, also known as collapsed discs, that cause vertebral compression. This compression can result in narrowing of the already tight nerve pathways in the spine, as well as increased friction between the vertebrae that can cause bone spurs. 

Degenerative disk disease is not necessarily painful, and for many is just part of the natural aging process that affects everyone. However, spinal narrowing and bone spurs can both lead to painful nerve compression that results in the following degenerative disk disease symptoms:

  • Localized neck and/or back pain
  • Radiating pain into the upper and/or lower extremities. 
  • Tingling and numbness in the upper and/or lower extremities
  • Muscle weakness and spasms
  • Difficulty walking 

Although degenerative disk disease can affect any of the discs in the spinal column, the most common regions for the condition to develop are the upper, or cervical, spine and the lower, or lumbar, spine. This is because of the relative flexibility and increased stress these discs are subjected to. 

How degenerative disk disease is related to other disc conditions

Many of the other common disc conditions, such as bulging discs and herniated discs, are related to the same age-related causes as degenerative disk disease. Although generally flattened discs are the most likely to be diagnosed as degenerative disk disease, many patients with this condition also have bulging discs or herniated discs present. 

Treatment for degenerative disk disease includes spinal injections and physical therapy

When doctors diagnose degenerative disk disease the first step of treatment consists of conservative, or nonsurgical therapies. Since degenerative disk disease is non-reversible, the goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and preserve function of the spine as much as possible. 

Doctor-recommended options include:

  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Physical therapy to increase strength and range of motion in the spine
  • Posture improvement to relieve pressure on the discs
  • Spinal injections to reduce pain and inflammation on a medium term basis
  • Lifestyle changes, such as weight management and improved nutrition
  • Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol consumption as needed

Many patients are able to enjoy a good quality of life after a degenerative disk disease diagnosis by committing to conservative therapies and a spine-healthy lifestyle. 

When to consider surgery

Surgery can be an effective treatment for cases of degenerative disk disease causing nerve compression that have not responded to conservative treatment and lifestyle changes. The goal of surgery is to relieve nerve compression by removing spinal anatomy, such as bulging disc material or bone spurs, that are narrowing the spinal canal and other nerve pathways. 

As an alternative to traditional open back surgery in a hospital setting, specially trained surgeons are now able to perform minimally invasive procedures for degenerative disk disease on an outpatient basis. These procedures help promote a shorter recovery time with less risk of complication compared to traditional spine surgery. 

Learn more about treatment options from the caring team at USA Spine Care

Degenerative disk disease pain does not have to stop you from living your life. To learn more about your treatment options, contact USA Spine Care today. We have comprehensive, multidisciplinary treatment options, including spinal injections, physical therapy and minimally invasive spine surgery that can help patients at any stage of their treatment journey find the relief they deserve. 

Degenerative Disk Disease Quick Answers

What causes degenerative disk disease?

Degenerative disk disease is caused by the natural aging process. Over time, our bodies tend to dry out and lose elasticity. This affects tissue across the body, including our skin, bones and connective tissue. As the spinal discs that cushion the vertebrae begin to dry out, they lose height and cause compression in the spinal column, which is a major component of degenerative disk disease.   

Can degenerative disk disease ever heal?

Degenerative disk disease is a nonreversible, age-related condition so it cannot heal. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms and improve functioning so patients can accomplish daily activities. Although it is not a curable condition, patients living with degenerative disk disease can achieve positive results by committing to conservative treatment and a spine healthy lifestyle. 

What are the best treatments for degenerative disk disease?

Upon diagnosis, patients are typically advised to follow a course of nonsurgical therapy. This includes rest, activity modification, using an ice pack and/or heating pad when needed and taking over-the-counter medication. Physical therapy can help to strengthen the spine and improve range of motion while corticosteroid injections can relieve pain and inflammation to allow for an increased activity level. 

Will I need surgery for degenerative disk disease?

Surgery can become a serious consideration if weeks or months of conservative therapy has been attempted without finding the relief necessary for a good quality of life. Surgical treatment for degenerative disk disease often involves decompression to relieve a pinched or irritated nerve by removing displaced spinal anatomy. In some cases, patients may be recommended to undergo a stabilization procedure, also known as fusion, to remove a severely deteriorated spinal disc and stabilize the spine.

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