The discs between the bones in your spine hold one vertebra to the next and act as a cushion between them The tough outer layer of disc is connective tissue is called the annulus fibrosis. The gel-like center is called the nucleus pulposus. Healthy discs act as as shock absorbers and allow the back and neck to bend, flex and twist. With degenerative disc disease, the structural integrity of discs break down. Discs do not have the robust blood supply of other tissues in the body, so they lack the natural ability to repair themselves.
Despite the name, this condition is not actually a disease. Rather, it is an age-related process where the disc volume gradually decreases, resulting in discs that shrink, wrinkle, and even crack. According to the Arthritis Foundation, almost everyone over the age of 60 has some disc degeneration, but not everyone feels pain. However, when disc changes allow vertebral structures to compress nerves where they exit the spinal column, the nerves may swell and cause pain that ranges from nagging to severe and debilitating.
Beyond the normal wear and tear of aging, other causes of degenerative disc disease include:
- Daily activities that cause the outer core of the disc to tear
- Injuries that cause swelling, soreness or instability in the spine
- Genetic predisposition
Symptoms tend to concentrate at the site in the back or neck where the disc is compromised. These symptoms may include:
- Pain that ranges from nagging to severe and debilitating
- Back pain may radiate to the buttocks and thighs
- Neck pain may radiate to the arms and hands
- Pain may worsen when sitting and lessen while standing, walking or laying down
- Intermittent pain that lasts a few days or a few months
- Numbness or tingling in the extremities
- Leg weakness or a dropped foot may indicate nerve damage in the back
Although there is no cure for degenerative disc disease, a combination of treatments can effectively control the pain from this condition. These treatments may include occupational therapy and/or physical therapy programs of therapeutic exercise. This will increase the strength and flexibility of the muscles that surround the spine. Pain medication, heat or cold therapy and spinal mobilization may also bring pain relief. Losing weight will decrease the pressure on the spine and your physician may prescribe medications to reduce the inflammation. Physicians encourage patients to self-manage the condition by incorporating an established level of physical activity into daily life. If severe pain persists despite theses measures, steroid or local anesthetic injections into the joints next to the damaged disc may be recommended. A surgical procedure to replace the damaged disc with artificial material and spinal fusion may be recommended.