The vertebrae of the spine are separated by soft discs that absorb shock, promote spinal flexibility, and serve as connective tissue. Each intervertebral disc consists of a gel-like substance that is contained in a fibrous capsule. The gel provides cushion, and the capsule evenly distributes weight. Degenerative disc disease is a painful condition that is linked to the deterioration of one or more of the spinal discs. This condition is a common cause of low back pain, but disc degeneration can affect any of the intervertebral discs. Back pain can eventually expand to the hips and other areas of the body, and some patients will experienced reduced movement and flexibility. If the disc degeneration begins to affect the nerves, numbness or tingling sensations may occur.
Disc degeneration occurs naturally as part of the aging process. The volume of the gel-like substance within the discs will decrease over time, and this loss of volume reduces the ability to cushion the vertebrae and absorb shock. Additionally, the capsule may develop small tears. As a result, the disc may rupture or bulge. Disc degeneration can also be caused by an injury that results in a herniated disc.
Some individuals will never experience any symptoms during the disc degeneration process, but others will experience debilitating pain. When a disc starts to deteriorate, painful inflammation may occur, and the lack of cushioning can result in spinal instability. Additionally, the collapse of the intervertebral disc may result in the development of bone spurs, and bone spurs may cause pain by applying pressure to the nerves and spinal cord.
Some factors, such as smoking and obesity, can exacerbate disc degeneration and increase the likelihood that symptoms will occur. Occupations and hobbies that involve intense physical activity can also speed up the process of degeneration.
There are several surgical and non-surgical options for treating degenerative disc disease.
Relatively mild cases can be managed with over-the-counter or prescription pain medications, heating pads, and ice packs. Certain lifestyle changes can also play an important role in treating degenerative disc disease, and some doctors will recommend weight management and smoking cessation. Additionally, physical or occupational therapy can reduce pain and help patients regain movement and flexibility.
In most cases, surgery is only considered after non-surgical options have been exhausted. Spinal fusion is one of the most common surgeries for this condition. During this surgery, the vertebrae on either side of the damaged disc are fused together. Another type of procedure, known as decompression surgery, involves removing tissue to decrease pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. There are many types of decompression surgery, and the nature of the surgery depends on the needs of the patient. Fusion and decompression procedures are the most common surgeries, but there are other surgeries that address specific types of damage to different areas of the spine.
After a patient recovers from surgery, physical therapy is often used for rehabilitation. Strengthening the muscles of the back can provide stability and prevent injury.
Disc degeneration is a normal part of aging, but some individuals will experience debilitating pain. In some cases, non-surgical treatments can be used to manage the pain. However, surgical options are available for patients who do not benefit from conservative treatment plans. Many doctors will suggest implementing physical therapy and positive lifestyle changes to benefit both surgical and non-surgical patients.