It’s a condition almost everyone will face in their lifetime. As one of the more common diagnoses for neck and back pain, degenerative disc disease affects people of all ages.
Your risk of degenerative disc disease correlates to your age— this means if you are 20 years old you have a 20% risk, 30 to 30%, 40 to 40% and so on.
But what is degenerative disc disease? What causes is and how do you treat it? With this guide, you will be able to answer those questions and learn more about what you can do to help yourself.
It’s Not a Disease
Despite a misleading name, degenerative disc disease is not a disease at all. The condition itself is a result of natural wear and tear on your spinal discs.
These discs are located between vertebrae in your spine to absorb shock and increase flexibility when you bend or move around. When you are born, these discs contain a finite amount of water that dries up over time.
The older you are, the more wear and tear your discs undergo. There are a few known causes for the condition:
- Drying: Your spinal discs will lose water over the course of your lifetime. This will cause the disc to shrink, shift, and/or expose the softer inner core.
- Injury: A spinal injury could cause extra damage to the disc and speed up the degeneration. Cracks or complete breaks are common causes for younger patients
- Exercise, Sports, Physical Activity: Your daily routine causes natural wear and tear on your bones and joints. It is because of this that disc disease is so common.
Levels of Pain
No two people with degenerative disc disease will have the same level of pain.
More often than not, you will experience a low level but constant pain in your lower back or neck. This pain stems from your lumbar and cervical discs. These two areas experience the most motion and are the most susceptible.
In some cases, a disc can cause numbness in your arms or legs or weakness. This usually occurs when nerve damage happens.
You may also notice severe or chronic pain flare-ups that could last a couple days to a few weeks. What causes a flare-up?
- Increased Mobility or Activity: A sudden increase in movement or physical activity can spark a flare-up as proteins release from the disc into the muscle and nerves around your spine.
- Instability: If a disc slips or shifts in place this will cause an increase in your pain levels. When this happens it is not uncommon for a pinched nerve or inflammation to occur.
- Sitting or Standing Too Long: If you have a job that requires you to sit at a desk for extended periods of time or have the opposite problem with being on your feet too long– this could cause fatigue and stiffness. This type of pain is manageable by going for a short walk to stretch out or by resting and taking breaks throughout your day.
If your pain is severe or lasts longer than a flare-up you may have chronic degenerative disc disease and need extra medical attention.
Getting a Diagnosis
Though it’s easy to diagnose yourself with back pain, it is not so easy to determine whether it’s a degenerative disc.
When you experience lower back or neck pain that lasts longer than a few days, make an appointment with your doctor. Be ready to pinpoint the location of the pain, the type of pain it is, and when it started.
Your doctor will ask you about your family’s medical history, any past injuries, and any activities you think could be the cause of the pain. You may have to go through an MRI scan.
The MRI or magnetic resonance imaging will show any disc damage, shift, or injury. It will not be able to determine the complete level of degeneration but will help your doctor determine the next steps for treating your back pain.
Once you are diagnosed with degenerative disc disease your doctor will recommend the appropriate treatment methods.
- Temperature Therapy: For inflammation use a cold ice pack on the area you experience the most pain. For tense or stiff muscles try a heating pad. Cold and Heat therapy work best for people with minor aches and pains.
- Pain Medication: Over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen or aspirin will also help reduce inflammation and lessen your back pain. Your doctor may prescribe stronger pain medications when necessary.
- Physical Therapy: The next step, if those treatments do not work is physical therapy. Certain stretches and movements can help ease your pain and relieve some of the stress placed on your spine.
- Chiropractor: A chiropractor is also a great resource for people with moderate to severe back pain. Manual manipulation of the discs and bones in your spine will realign them and improve mobility and reduce pain. This is usually combined with physical therapy.
- Spinal Injections: For more severe cases of degenerative discs, doctors recommend epidural steroid injections. The injection is administered near the source of your pain and goes straight to the source rather than general pain medication.
- TENS Therapy: TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation— a device that sends electrical stimulation to specific areas of the body to relieve pain. This form of therapy is often combined with physical therapy or chiropractor visits.
- Surgery: In a few cases, surgery may be required to fix or adjust one or multiple discs in your back. Surgery is not the first step and happens in severe cases where there is a lot of damage.
To determine the best course of treatment for your back pain, talk to your doctor about what they think is best for your situation.
Learn More About Degenerative Disc Disease
If you think you could have degenerative disc disease, it is best to speak with your doctor right away.
At the Comprehensive Spine Institute, there are many specialists and physicians who can help find the right treatment for you. Contact us today to schedule a consultation!