It would be logical to assume that degenerative disc disease, one of the most common spine problems in older adults, is a disease. However, this progression of changes in spinal discs due to aging, wear and tear, and sometimes injury isn’t a disease at all, but a condition that can lead to chronic pain, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
"To understand degenerative disc disease, it’s helpful to understand the spine’s anatomy," Dr. Chang says. Spinal discs sit between bony vertebrae, enabling us to bend and flex as well as cushioning much of the stress of day-to-day movement on our spines. Gradual changes in any area of the back or neck from degenerative disc disease (often dubbed the “degenerative cascade”) can lead to lost fluid in the discs, torn outer layers, or ingrowth of nerve fibers.
“All of these changes can result in chronic pain,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “Additionally, other spine problems can occur as disc deterioration continues, including bone spurs, herniated discs and spinal stenosis. When this deterioration is severe, your range of motion can become limited. Knowing symptoms and getting an accurate diagnosis is important to help slow or stop the damage.”
Causes and Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease
Various risk factors for degenerative disc disease can’t be changed, including getting older and having a family history of the condition, Dr. Chang notes. But other risk factors are modifiable, such as obesity, heavy lifting or physical work, smoking, back injury, and sports participation.
Quickly identifying the condition can rely on knowing its symptoms, which include:
- Pain in the low back, buttocks, thighs or neck
- Pain that worsens when sitting, bending, lifting or twisting
- Pain that feels better when walking, changing positions or lying down
- Periods of severe pain that improves after days or even months
- Numbness, weakness or tingling in the legs
“The chance of developing degenerative disc disease, or a severe case of it, is certainly heightened in those who don’t practice healthy lifestyle measures, such as smoking or gaining excessive weight,” Dr. Chang explains. “Clearly, we can’t eliminate all our risk factors for the condition, but proactively protecting our spine is possible by controlling the risk factors we can.”
Helping Slow the Development of Degenerative Disc Disease
What can you do to help slow the development or progression of degenerative disc disease? Dr. Chang says these measures include:
Drinking water: Consuming plenty of water can help keep discs strong and pliable, also helping you avoid weight gain that could tax your spine.
Eating right: Healthy foods such as leafy green veggies, whole grain pastas and breads, fish, nuts and dairy products all help nourish the bones and the supporting vertebral discs.
Scheduling physical activity: Regular exercise contributes to blood and nutrient flow to back muscles, which support the spine and discs. As a bonus, exercise triggers the release of pain-soothing chemicals known as endorphins.
“Treatment options for degenerative disc disease are typically conservative, combining tactics such as physical therapy or steroid injections,” Dr. Chang says. “If these techniques don’t work and pain remains severe, or bowel or bladder function is affected, then surgery may be required for some patients. Talk to your doctor to come up with a plan that best suits your needs.”
What to know even more? Check out our quick 3D Animation video about Degenerative Disc Disease and how it creates pain in the spine: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiQQ6-WLv3o)