Degenerative Disc Disease: A Guide for Patients

As we age, our bodies undergo several changes, one common condition that many individuals face is degenerative disc disease (DDD). In this post, we'll help you understand what degenerative disc disease is, its causes, symptoms and treatment options that can help you cope with the condition.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease refers to the break down of the discs between the vertebrae of the spine. These discs act as shock absorbers and provide flexibility to the spine. Over time, these cushions can wear down, leading to pain, discomfort, and reduced mobility.

Causes:

While this is primarily a degenerative condition (hence the name), there are other factors that can contribute as well:

  • Age: Besides the general wear and tear that comes with aging, we also lose water content in the discs over time, making them less flexible and more prone to degeneration.
  • Genetics: Some people may have a genetic predisposition to DDD; inheriting traits that may make their discs more susceptible to wear and tear.
  • Lifestyle: Factors like smoking, obesity, poor posture, and an active lifestyle can strain the spine, accelerating the breakdown of discs.

DDD Symptoms:

Back and/or neck pain tends to be the most common symptom seen among Degenerative Disc Disease patients. This pain can be chronic, or could come and go. Back pain is generally felt in the lower back and can radiate to the rest of the lower extremity, while neck pain causes stiffness in the neck, extending to the rest of the upper extremity.

Numbness, tingling and weakness can also occur in both the arms and legs due to nerve compression. Stiffness and pain in the back and neck can also lead to reduced mobility and difficulty lifting or bending, which also contributes to muscle weakness.

Diagnosis and Treatment:

If you're experiencing symptoms of DDD or any other back and neck condition, it's important to seek medical attention from your doctor or a spine specialist. Typically, the provider will perform a physical exam and may order diagnostic testing, such an X-ray, MRI, or CT. These scans are used to assess the condition of the discs, confirming the diagnosis and ruling out other conditions.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for Degenerative Disc Disease, however there are several treatment options can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life:

  • Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications can help alleviate some of the pain associated with DDD. In some cases, steroid injections in the spine may be used to help provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation.
  • Physical Therapy: PT is another great conservative treatment option that can be used as a first line defense, or as a follow up after surgery. A physical therapist can customize an exercise program based on your individual needs to help strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, improve flexibility, and alleviate pain.
  • Surgery: If conservative treatments fail, surgical intervention may be necessary to provide relief. Some of the minimally invasive surgical options include a discectomy (removal of the damaged disc) or spinal fusion (permanently joining two or more vertebrae together).
  • In addition to medical intervention, lifestyle changes can also play a role in treating DDD. Things such as maintaining a healthy weight (relieving pressure on the spine), maintaining good posture (reducing strain on the spine), staying active (to keep your surrounding muscles strong) and living a smoke free lifestyle (to promote healthy blood flow) all play a factor in the progression and maintenance of DDD.
Degenerative disc disease is a common condition that affects millions of people worldwide, especially as they age. While it is an unwelcome condition, understanding the causes, symptoms and treatment options can allow you to take control and help manage the disease. By adopting healthy habits, seeking appropriate medical care, and following  through with your treatment plan, you can minimize the impact of DDD and continue to enjoy an active and fulfilling lifestyle.

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