An Introduction to Degenerative Disc Disease

Woman holding painful lower back
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Degenerative disc disease is a natural part of aging, even though not everyone experiences the symptoms. Degenerative disc disease implies is the process at which the disc in the spine degrades over time. This, however, does not imply that the symptoms will worsen over time. The degeneration is oftentimes due to the loss of fluid in the discs, reducing the flexibility and shock absorbance of them.

Similarly, cracks in the exterior of the disc can cause the nucleus to escape and cause the degeneration as well. Due to this, the vertebrae are brought closer to one another. The nerve openings in return start to narrow making the spine weaker. Smokers and obese people are more likely to suffer from degenerative disc disease because both nicotine and weight can have an effect on the discs.

Degenerative disc disease causes radiating pain and numbness due to the degenerated disc in the spine. Low back pain and neck pain are two components that are often linked with degenerative disc disease. When consulting your doctor regarding back or neck pain, you will often be required to take an MRI scan. MRI findings may not find the direct cause of the low back pain you are experiencing. Rather, it will likely show disc dehydration, annular tears or disc bulges. Fusing a spine with these issues will be less effective than fusing a disc space that involves disc space collapse and the erosion of cartilaginous end plate.

Thus, your doctor will often do further evaluation post your MRI scan to inquire more about your condition and see if spinal fusion for degenerative disc disease is applicable to you.

The Idea behind Degenerative Disc Disease

Each vertebral segment in the spine is a joint composed of cartilage. Similarly, cartilage is found between the vertebral body and the disc space, the cartilaginous end plate.

The cartilaginous end plate is nutrient rich. The erosion of it can cause inflammation and micromotion stability, equating to pain. This will eventually cause the disc space to collapse.

Pain that’s derived from degenerative disc disease is due to either inflammation or abnormal micromotion instability. Inflammation is caused by the proteins within the disc space. Inflammation in the lumbar disc space is usually related to pain in the lower back which can then radiate down towards the hips and down the anterior of the leg, sometimes all the way down to the toes. Inflammation related to the cervical disc space, on the other hand, can lead to localized pain in the neck or pain that radiates through the shoulder, to the arm, and sometimes the hands. In terms of abnormal micromotion instability, the deterioration of the exterior of the intervertebral discs will decrease the spine’s ability to resist motion. These two causes of pain are often the cause of muscle spasms in both the lower back and neck.

These spasms are a result of the spine attempting to stabilize itself.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

There are a few ways that treatment will be directed for someone with degenerative disc disease. One method is pain control, where the goal is enough pain reduction via medication. Exercise and rehabilitation is another form of treatment. Exercise allows the back to heal and reduces recurrences of pain. This is because it releases endorphins which are hormones that help the body naturally relieve pain. Exercise is usually most effective under the supervision of a physical therapist. Another form of treatment is lifestyle modification, which allows the patient to be educated and alter their lifestyle accordingly to ensure healthier living. By doing so, the patient can avoid further stress on the spine and work on supporting it instead. The key to treating this condition is rotating through possible treatments and pain management methods. Talk to your physician to get a better understanding of what is the safest and most ideal approach for you.

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