Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative Disc Disease is the degeneration process of the spinal disc causing problems in the spine.


The spine or vertebrae are divided into three main sections. The cervical spine in the neck, the thoracic spine found in the mid-back, and the lumbar spine found in the lower back. Spinal discs can be found between each vertebra in the spine. These discs were made as shock absorbers to absorb the pressure and give the spine its flexibility. They act like shock absorbers during activities involving the spine. Without these discs, movements like bending and twisting would be limited or impossible.

What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?

A healthy spinal disc has a lot of lubricant at its center. The lubricant allows the disc to absorb the stress or pressure brought to it. Intense pressure exerted on these discs may cause injury to the outer layer or annulus of the discs. The annulus is responsible for holding the vertebrae together. Once damaged, the annulus may show small tears or cracks. The tears may heal but with scar tissue rather than the normal tissue or ligament. This scar tissue is not as strong as the ligament tissue. As the annulus is filled up by scar tissue, it becomes weaker which leads to the destruction of the nucleus pulposus or the center of the disc. This leads to the leakage of the water content or lubricant outside of the disc.

The loss of lubricant leads to the discs losing their ability to perform their duty as shock absorbers. This causes more pressure to the annulus causing more cracks and tears, and the process of destruction of the nucleus pulposus repeats itself. The nucleus then loses more of its lubricant which causes it to collapse. The loss of lubricant renders the vertebrae unable to absorb the pressure to provide the mobility needed for bending and twisting.

These changes usually occur in people who do a lot of heavy lifting and smokers. Obese people and patients with spinal injuries are also to exhibit the symptoms of degenerative disk disease or begin the process of degeneration.

The destruction of the disc causes the spaces between the vertebrae to narrow. The narrowing causes the spine to lose its stability. In response to the loss of stability and the body’s response to trying to stop further movement, bony growths are constructed called bone spurs or osteophytes. However, this osteophyte causes pressure on the spinal cord causing an alteration in the nerve function and pain.

Degenerative Disk Disease Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease vary from one person to another. Some may experience pain to the point that it hinders them from performing their daily activities while others may exhibit no symptoms at all. Symptoms may also occur depending on the location of the affected disc. Pain in the neck area (See: neck pain relief) that may or may not be radiating to the arms may mean that the affected disc is in the cervical vertebrae. An affected disk in the thoracic vertebrae may cause pain in the mid-back portion while an affected disc in the lumber vertebrae may result in lower back pain that may radiate into the buttocks or the legs. These pains usually worsen with activities involving lifting heavy objects, bending, or twisting. The pain may start gradually for no reason and worsens over time.

Diagnostics for Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative Disc Disease can be diagnosed through history taking and physical examination. History taking would include symptoms experienced, previous illnesses, or injuries as well as activities or habits that may have contributed to the pain. During physical examination, the area affected is examined. The range of motion of the affected area is assessed. The affected area is also assessed for weakness, numbness, tingling, or changes in the reflexes.

Imaging tests such as MRI scans or x-rays may help detect bone deformities such as osteophytes, narrowing of vertebral spaces, and instability during range of motion exercises.

Degenerative Disk Disease Treatment

Pain caused by degenerative disk disease may be relieved by pain medications such as acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), Naproxen or Ibuprofen. However, NSAIDs such as aspirin are discouraged for anyone below 20 years of age because of the probability of developing Reye’s syndrome. Alternating hot and cold compresses may also provide pain relief. If any of them won’t relieve the pain, a stronger pain medication may be prescribed by your doctor.

In Degenerative Disc Disease, a more intense treatment depends on the severity of the condition if the damaged disc has caused other conditions like: spinal stenosis, herniated discs, or osteoarthritis. Physical therapists aid patients in performing exercises to stretch and strengthen the back may be suggested. In some cases, surgery may be needed. Such surgery includes the removal of the damaged disc or by permanently fusing the bones to prevent damage to the spinal cord. The use of an artificial disc to replace the damaged disc may also be used.

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