Back & Neck Conditions
Disc Disease — Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Recovery
Spinal disc degeneration, also known as degenerative disc disease, is not actually a disease. Rather, it refers to changes in the spinal discs as a result of chronic wear and tear, injury, or natural aging that occurs over a long period of time. These changes include loss of fluid in the discs (a condition called disc desiccation), tears of the disc annulus (the outer layer of the disc), and growth of nerve fibers in the damaged discs.
Degenerative disc disease is more commonly found in the lower back (lumbar region of the spine) and the neck (cervical region of the spine), but may also occur in any other area of the spine. The human spine consists of alternating vertebrae and discs which act as cushions, with most of the pressure and stress of everyday movements being absorbed by them. Vertebral discs play a considerable role in our spinal anatomy. Without them, the vertebrae would be unable to absorb stress, become unstable, and would eventually be unable to bend or flex.
Symptoms and Causes
Degenerative disc disease occurs in the neck or lower back regions of the spine. This happens because these regions are under more pressure than others.
Discs in these regions have more movement, and therefore wear and tear much more. So, the intervertebral discs are located between the vertebrae of the spine and serve as padding between them. These discs help with the stress that occurs in the spine with movement.
With age or due to some other reasons like repetitive movements, the elastic part of the disc can wear and tear. There are several reasons for this, including loss of fluid, which is one of the main components of the discs, or some changes in disc structure, such as cracks or tears.
As the body compensates for the loss of padding, it can grow bone spurs to make the spine more stable. Such spurs can result in painful sensations, especially if they affect nerves.
Degenerative disc disease symptoms include dull chronic pain in the affected region, but in some cases, it can be worse. These periods can last for a while, from a couple of days to several weeks. This pain can also happen after sitting or standing in a certain position, or if you have bad posture.
It is important to remember that the degree of pain doesn’t indicate the degree of the disease. So, you can experience little pain but have a serious issue, so consulting a doctor is key. This is also the reason for a thorough examination and diagnostic tests.
Among other degenerative disc diseases is pain that increases after bending or twisting, especially after lifting heavy things. The pain is usually accompanied by muscle tension or spasms, or it can radiate into the shoulders, arms, or hands.
Diagnosis and Tests
In order to define the proper treatment, a person needs to be diagnosed by a doctor. The usual diagnosis process involves several stages, including collecting a medical history with a description of the pain and other symptoms. A doctor may also ask about any medications a person takes, or about any other chronic diseases.
A physical exam is something regularly performed by doctors to rule out other conditions. During this exam, a physician checks for numbness, loss of sensation or tenderness. A doctor can ask a patient to move a certain way, for example, to bend.
Sometimes to rule out other conditions, a doctor may also need tests, such as a blood test or an imaging test. There are several types of imaging tests, including an MRI scan, an X-ray, and so on. Typically, for a degenerated disc, an MRI scan is preferred, as it shows dehydration in disc tissues or a herniated disc. Among other procedures are CT scan and X-ray, which also both show a herniated disc.
Management and Treatment
There are several degenerated disc disease treatment targets. The first one is pain management. For this, cold or warm packs can be placed on the affected area. Also, a doctor can prescribe medications like ibuprofen or aspirin. Pain management also helps with restoring mobility, which is extremely important in doing rehabilitative exercises. There can be some additional treatment for inflammation or muscle tension.
In case of severe pain, manual manipulation or epidural steroid injections can be done to ease the pain and unpleasant sensations.
In serious cases, you might need surgery. It is usually an option for those who have back or leg pain or numbness who didn’t respond to conservative therapy. There are several types of surgery. The first one, spinal fusion, joins two vertebrae together to make the spine more stable. Such a surgery relieves pain, but it has a side effect - the increased chance of disc degeneration.
The second option is decompression surgery, which targets the removal of a part of a joint. This eases the pain as it removes pressure on the nerves.
Let’s discuss exercising. Everyone understands the importance of physical activity. It improves your overall health, but it is also beneficial for tissue regeneration, post-surgery recovery and for spinal disease prevention. Some exercises are recommended for patients with degenerative disc disease. These include gentle stretching, some strengthening exercises and aerobic exercises. If you can’t perform high-impact exercises or train for a long period of time, choose other options like low-impact exercises, gentle stretching and walking, as even a small effort counts.
There are several lifestyle changes to help prevent spinal diseases. They include maintaining healthy body weight and having a balanced healthy diet rich in vitamin D, Zinc, and Calcium. Also, make sure that you drink enough water.
Quitting smoking and drinking is also a good idea, as nicotine slows down regeneration processes and badly influences your overall health.
Another two tips are incorporating some movement into your life to increase muscle strength and flexibility, and choosing ergonomic furniture. Using proper tables and chairs is extremely important if you have a sedentary lifestyle and need to spend most of your time sitting. In this case, also try to stand up and perform some exercises once in a while to get some movement.
Another good idea is to learn proper techniques for bending and lifting heavy things. For example, lifting heavy things by bending is not a good idea, it can lead to injuries. Instead, you should lift things by squatting. In this case, the pressure is distributed properly.
Even if the diagnosis sounds scary, in most cases, people only need traditional non-surgical treatment to ease the pain. Those who have surgery most likely get long-term pain relief.
Severe degenerative disc disease can limit the range of motion. Remember that degenerative disc disease can increase the risk of other spine conditions, such as osteoarthritis, scoliosis, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis, so it’s best to prevent spine diseases.