Although the name indicates otherwise, degenerative disc disease is not a literal disease, but rather a condition that occurs due to chronic back pain and aging. Degenerative disc disease is common in healthy individuals and symptoms can occur as early as the late 30’s.
Once you have a better understanding of degenerative disc disease, you’ll understand how important it is to get a diagnosis and begin a treatment plan. The discs in the spine are actually sacs filled with fluid. These sacs separate the vertebrae and act as sort of a shock absorber so you can move fluidly. Those who suffer ongoing—or chronic—back pain will eventually begin to experience a deterioration of these discs.
The breakdown or degeneration of these discs can cause bulging and tearing or even rupturing, which can lead to a herniated disc. As we get older, there is less and less fluid to make movement painless, and this is known as degenerative disc disease.
Those with degenerative disc disease are most likely to experience damage to the lumbar or cervical areas. The lumbar region is the lower back and the cervical region is the neck area, and these are most often used for lifting, twisting, walking and bending. The pain tends to increase when these actions are performed, but also during mundane activities like standing for long time frames.
Symptoms Of DDD
The only way to really know if you have degenerative disc disease is to get a MRI image for confirmation, but if you have experienced chronic back pain for most of your life, chances are good you could develop DDD.
If you’ve experienced lumbar disc damage, or lower back pain for many years, you will experience radiating pain down your buttocks, thigh and knee. You may also have symptoms that include numbness or tingling in the legs and lower back. Sciatica is also a common symptom for those who suffer ongoing lower back pain.
If your symptoms include neck pain that radiates throughout the shoulders and arms, you may have cervical disc damage. These symptoms also include tingling and numbness in the neck and shoulder region as well as a decreased range of motion. This pain may worsen with long periods of sitting or poor posture.
Degenerative disc disease may affect both the lumbar and cervical region, but it may also only affect the area that has experienced the most prolonged pain. As we progress in age these pains will become more pronounced. Of course there is a certain amount of muscle aches and pains experienced by all humans as they age, those with DDD will experience it more acutely.
DDD Risk Factors
While there are some injuries that can be a precursor to degenerative disc disease, there are also other lifestyle factors that may contribute to it. Those who have experienced sports-related back injuries, or muscle wear and tear from being physically active are more likely to have DDD than those who lead a relatively sedentary life.
That is not to say that those who are sedentary—like those who are obese or smokers—aren’t susceptible to degenerative disc disease as well. Long periods of sitting, particularly with poor posture or an inordinate amount of weight applying pressure to the spine, can cause excess damage over time.
Diagnosis & Treatment
The aging process can cause more aches and muscle pains for everyone, however that pain can be more than what is expected for chronic back pain sufferers. If you suspect you may be at the age where degenerative disc disease is a concern, your physician may recommend magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.
MRIs have incredible imaging capabilities that allow your spinal discs and the sacs to be magnified for diagnosis. If you’ve had other MRIs in recent years, your physician can compare images to take note of any changes in the spine, such as the spaces between each vertebrae. The clarity of the imaging will depend on the quality of the equipment your physician uses, but a degenerative disc MRI image can prove highly effective at diagnosing DDD.
Once you have received your diagnosis of DDD, which can often be done on the same visit at some offices with digital imaging, your doctor will recommend a back pain management plan. This treatment will include painkillers, anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and in some extreme cases, surgery.