Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

The wear and tear that affects the spongy discs supporting the spine is referred to as degenerative disc disease, which is not really a disease, but rather a blanket term for degeneration of spinal discs. Often caused by age-related changes to the structure of spinal discs, DDD makes the spine more susceptible to injury. While any part of the spine may be affected, the lower back and neck are more susceptible to degeneration.

Effects

Several specific conditions can be caused by degeneration of spinal discs. With disc herniation, for instance, inner disc material pushes outward when the disc itself becomes structurally weak or becomes damaged from an injury. Degeneration can also result from:

  • Osteoarthritis: The gradual breakdown of cartilage (flexible, rubbery tissue) that cushions joints.
  • Spinal stenosis: Narrowing of the spinal canal that can reduce available space for nerves.

Diagnosis

MRIs, X-rays, and CT scans are often performed to confirm some level of degeneration affecting spinal discs. Medical history is also taken into consideration, as is a patient’s description of activities or movements that tend to trigger discomfort.

What are the Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?

Most common in the lower back and neck.

Symptoms include

  • Neck or arm pain
  • Pain that gets worse while sitting, standing, or bending
  • Gradual pain that slowly becomes more bothersome
  • Nerve root damage (leg weakness)

Degenerative Disc Disease Causes

Degenerative disc disease is a painful condition with several known causes. The most significant factor leading to the development of degenerative disc disease is the natural aging process. As people age, the discs in the spine and neck begin to dry, and elasticity decreases. The discs are not able to resist shock and injury as they could when a person was younger.

Being overweight is a major cause of degenerative disc disease. Carrying excess weight places additional stress on the spine leading to disc degeneration over time.

The way a person moves over time may contribute to degenerative disc disease. Those who do a lot of physically demanding work that involves heavy lifting have a higher than average chance of developing several different types of back and neck problems including disc degeneration.

In addition to these causes, an injury to the back or neck may start the process of degeneration in the discs. While a sudden and jarring injury may lead to problems, normally a low impact injury is what starts the degeneration process that will continue over time until symptoms are noticed.

How is Degenerative Disc Disease Treated?

Muscle stretching and strengthening exercises, customized physical therapy sessions, and acetaminophen (Tylenol) or anti-inflammatory medications (Advil, Motrin, Aleve) are common treatment options for DDD.

Treatment includes

  • Modifying activities
  • Epidural injections
  • Chiropractic manipulation
  • TENS units (electrical stimulation)
  • Massage therapy

Surgery (fusion, artificial disc replacement) is rarely necessary for degenerative disc disease unless there is a clear mechanical source of pain, such as a herniated disc, and conservative treatments have been unsuccessful for at least six months. Degeneration can often be minimized by getting regular exercise, staying hydrated and paying attention to weight and diet.

Degenerative Disc Disease Prevention

There is little that can be done to prevent the natural aging process and its role in causing degenerative disc disease. However, there are ways to prevent the other causes of degeneration of the discs.

Maintaining a healthy weight is important. Those who are overweight should consult with a doctor and begin a sensible weight loss program. Even a small amount of excess weight is bad for the back.

Exercise is important. Those who exercise a moderate amount at least a few times a week will develop fewer back problems as well as fewer health problems in general.

Paying attention to how one lifts heavy objects is a good means of prevention. Never lift heavy amounts alone. Never bend over and lift with the upper body only. Use the legs to aid in lifting. Also, do not perform repetitive motions with the back over a long period of time if possible.