Degenerative disc disease is a condition that is commonly misunderstood. A degenerated disc is not actually a disease—it is part of the normal aging of the spine. When a spinal disc degenerates, it loses its ability to function efficiently as part of the spinal joint, which in turn can lead to back pain and possibly pain that radiates through the extremities.
NB: Be careful because occurs in the cervical spine (neck) or the lumbar spine (lower back), as these areas of the spine undergo the most motion and are most susceptible to wear and tear.
Degenerative Disc Disease FACTS
1. It’s not actually a disease. It’s a degenerative condition involving the discs in the spine.
2. Often times, degenerative discs do not cause pain or any other symptoms. But as the discs degenerate, the possibility of those problems becomes greater.
3. Degenerative Disc Disease is usually just a result of normal wear and tear on the spine over time. However, injuries can hasten the degeneration.
4. Most people over 30 already have some degree of Degenerative Disc Disease. But they may not show any symptoms of it for many years, if they do at all.
5. Some common symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease include pain that comes and goes and can be severe, that can occur anywhere from the neck down into the legs, and pain that gets worse when you sit, bend over, twist, or lift anything.
6. Having Degenerative Disc Disease can lead to a greater chance in developing herniated or bulging discs, arthritis in the spine, and spinal stenosis.
7. For many people suffering from Degenerative Disc Disease, walking or even running can help alleviate the pain. But the most effective way to relieve the pain is to lay down because this removes all the weight and pressure from the problem area.
8. Although having Degenerative Disc Disease means your discs will continue to break down over time, your pain and other symptoms will generally stay the same throughout.
9. Some people with long term Degenerative Disc Disease may experience something called a “degenerative cascade.” This is where after a long period of chronic back pain due to a degenerative disc, the body may re-stabilize the area which leads to less pain. But this can take 20 to 30 years!
10. DDD can be very painful and debilitating, but is usually not life threatening. However, in very rare occasions it can lead to serious complications. If you experience a loss in control of your bladder and/or bowels, the pain continues to worsen, or if you experience numbness, pain, or weakness in your legs, you should seek medical attention immediately.
The most indicative symptom of degenerative disc disease is a low-grade, continuous pain around the degenerating disc that occasionally flares up into more severe, potentially disabling pain.
Pain flare-ups can be related to recent activity and abnormal stress on the spine, or they may arise suddenly with no obvious cause. Episodes can last between a few days to several weeks before returning to low levels of pain or temporarily going away entirely.
- Increased pain with activities that involve bending or twisting the spine, as well as lifting something heavy
- A “giving out” sensation, caused by spinal instability, in which the neck or back feels as if it is unable to provide basic support, and may lock up and make movement feel difficult.
- Muscle tension or muscle spasms, which are common effects of spinal instability. In some cases, a degenerated disc may cause no pain but muscle spasms are severely painful and temporarily debilitating.
- Possible radiating pain that feels sharp, stabbing, or hot. In cases of cervical disc degeneration, this pain is felt in the shoulder, arm, or hand (called a cervical radiculopathy); in cases of lumbar disc degeneration, pain is felt in the hips, buttocks, or down the back of the leg
- Increased pain when holding certain positions, such as sitting or standing for extended periods (exacerbating low back pain), or looking down too long at a cell phone or book (worsening neck pain).
- Reduced pain when changing positions frequently, rather than remaining seated or standing for prolonged periods. Likewise, regularly stretching the neck can decrease cervical disc pain, and taking short, frequent walks during the day can decrease lumbar disc pain
- Decreased pain with certain positions, such as sitting in a reclining position or lying down with a pillow under the knees, or using a pillow that maintains the neck’s natural curvature during sleep.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications. Pain medications such as aspirin (Bayer), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve) can relieve inflammation that contributes to discomfort, stiffness, and nerve root irritation. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a pain reliever that interferes with pain signals sent to the brain.
- Prescription pain medications. Severe pain that is not relieved with OTC medications may be muscle relaxants or narcotic painkillers. These medications are commonly used to treat intense, acute pain that is not expected to last more than a few days or weeks. These medications can be addictive and cause serious side effects, so they must be used with caution and according to instructions provided by the prescribing doctor.
- Heat and ice. Applying heat to the low back improves circulation, which reduces muscle spasms and tension and improves mobility. Ice packs can reduce inflammation and numb mild pain. It can be helpful to apply heat before physical activities to relax the muscles, and to apply ice after activity to minimize inflammation.
- Manual manipulation. Manual manipulation, commonly associated with chiropractic care, is a popular pain management method for low back pain. Practitioners use their hands to apply force and pressure to the back, hips, or other areas, with the goal of reducing tension in the muscles and joints. Manual manipulation has been found to be an effective measure for temporarily decreasing pain, and in some cases is as effective as medication.
- Massage therapy. Massage therapy can reduce tension and spasms in the low back muscles, reducing pressure on the spine and alleviating pain. Additionally, massage therapy can improve circulation, providing healing nutrients and oxygen to tense muscles.
- Epidural steroid injections (ESIs). A steroid injection administered in the space surrounding the spine can reduce pain signals as well as inflammation. A steroid injection may be used in combination with a physical therapy program to provide pain relief during exercise and rehabilitation. When effective, an epidural steroid injection may alleviate pain for a couple weeks up to one year.