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Understanding Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative Disc DiseaseNeck and back pain is a common problem that affects millions of Americans. Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back pain. In simple terms, this is a spinal condition caused by the breakdown of the intervertebral discs. The condition is not actually a single disease, but a condition that develops as a consequence of aging.

When we age, the spine become weaker and begins to show signs of wear and tear as the discs shrink and dry out. The discs lose their flexibility, elasticity and shock absorbing characteristics. This may cause them to change from a supple state that allows fluid movements to a rigid state that restricts your movement, thereby causing pain. Routine physical activities and sports can also cause tears in the outer disc core. Unlike other bodily tissues, the discs are unable to repair themselves due to poor blood supply. In addition to age and injury, arthritis and osteoporosis can directly contribute to degeneration of the intervertebral discs.


The symptoms of degenerative disc disease may vary from one person to another. While most people with deterioration have no pain, others may experience intense pain that would directly interfere with their daily activities. The symptoms start in three ways

  • A major injury followed by sudden and unexpected pain
  • A trivial injury followed by sudden back aches
  • Aches that begins slowly and gets progressively worse

Normally, sitting causes the most pain because the discs bear more weight than when standing. Aches may get worse with certain activities such as bending, twisting or lifting. Activities like walking, running and even lying down helps in pain management. The condition mostly affects young adults or middle-aged people who lead an active lifestyle. The location of the pain may not be just the back or neck area – it can also affect the lower back area, buttocks, thighs or even the arms and hands.

Diagnosis and Treatment Methods

The physician will conduct a complete evaluation by analyzing your symptoms, injuries, checking nerve endings and muscle strength and checking for pain with your range of motion. It will also be checked if specific lifestyle habits are contributing to the condition. Imaging studies such as X-ray, MRI scan, discogram, myelogram, or CT scan are used to view the damage to the discs.

When it comes to treatment, non-surgical options can prove quite effective. These include

  • Physical therapy – Physical therapy exercises help reduce aches and stiffness associated with the disease, resulting in faster healing. Physical therapists may recommend proper lifting and walking techniques, and will work with patients to strengthen and stretch the lower back muscles, thereby increasing flexibility of spine. Activity modification, rest, and application of ice packs may also be helpful in the acute stages.
  • Chiropractic manipulation – This hands-on method allows the joints to return to a more normal motion, lowers aches, muscle spasms or imbalance, and improves overall function.
  • Medication – Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) and steroids may be prescribed to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

Self care includes maintaining correct posture, taking proper rest, wearing a brace and performing exercises that strengthen the back. It is important to make proper adjustments to daily standing, sitting and sleeping habits. Learning proper ways to bend and lift would also help.

Surgery would be recommended only in situations where in the affected disc starts pinching on the nerves or spinal cord, thereby causing spinal instability.

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