Used to describe normal and expected changes in the spinal discs as we age, degenerative disc disease occurs when the soft disks that separate the vertebrae in the spine and act as a defense from shocks weaken, causing sometimes intense pain and a loss of quality of life.
Degenerative disc disease can be caused by a depletion of fluid in the discs themselves, which makes them less effective as absorbing shock and reduces the distance between the vertebrae. Additionally, the outer layer of the disc may become damaged and the nucleus material inside may be forced out, causing a rupture or fracture of the disc. A sudden traumatic injury can also cause the disc to begin deteriorating, as can obesity, smoking and strenuous physical work or athletic activity.
The most common signs and symptoms of degenerative disc disease include a pain beginning in the lower back and radiating outward to the hips; pain while walking that manifests in the thighs or buttocks; a tingling sensation or weakness in the knees and a pain in the upper spine perhaps radiating outward into the arms and hands.
After looking at a patient’s history, a surgeon will likely conduct a physical examination during which they will check for changes in the nerves, including tenderness, numbness or tingling as well as problems with reflexes. In addition, the exam will look for other underlying conditions such as infections and existing tumors or fractures. Combining the physical exam with imaging tools such as x-rays, MRIs and CT scans, the physician can better conclude that degenerative disc disease exists.
Post diagnosis, degenerative disc disease can most often been treated in a non-surgical manner. Chiropractic and physical therapies, combined with anti-inflammatory medications, can often provide lasting relief within two to three months.
If non-surgical treatments are not effective, surgical alternatives are available, especially if the condition has seriously affected quality of life and restricted normal day-to-day activity. Such surgeries may include anterior cervical discectomy with fusion, intervertebral disc annuloplasty and intervertebral disc arthroplasty.