Degenerative disc disease, also called spondylosis or DDD, is a general term used to describe age-related changes that can occur along any area of the spine but most commonly in the lumbar area. DDD is not a disease, but rather a condition in which your discs “degenerate,” or lose their flexibility and ability to cushion your spine. Spinal discs don’t have a good blood supply, so once the spinal cord is injured, it cannot repair itself.
These age-related changes can lead to spinal stenosis (a condition that puts pressure on your spinal cord and nerves and may cause back pain), arthritis, or disc herniation.
- Spinal discs dry out and shrink. Spinal discs are 80% water, but as you age, they slowly dry out. Made of about 80% This leads to a loss of flexibility, which puts more stress on the annulus, the outer membrane of the disc.
- Small tears occur in the annulus. The center of the spinal disc is called the nucleus pulposus, which is made up of a gel-like material. This material, which material has many inflammatory proteins that can inflame the nerves and cause pain, can seep through a tear in the annulus and coat the nerves. These tears also affect the nerves in the annulus, which can cause also pain. Over the years the proteins eventually dry up, and the discs become stiffer; in many people, this results in less pain by the time they are in their sixties.
- Disc space gets smaller. Due to the loss of water in the spinal discs, the distance between vertebrae begins to collapse, which is why we get shorter as we age.
- Bone spurs grow. Without the discs holding apart the vertebrae, the bones may rub against each other, causing abnormal bone growths.
- Spinal canal narrows. The stresses of all the above changes cause the ligaments and facet joints to enlarge as they try to compensate and spread the load over a larger area. This overgrowth causes the spinal canal to narrow, which can compress the spinal cord and nerves, causing pain.
DDD symptoms include:
- Sharp pain in your neck, back, trunk, or upper thighs
- Pain worsens when sitting, bending, lifting, or twisting
- Pain relief when walking, running, lying down, or changing positions often
- Periods of severe pain, from several days to months
- Signs of nerve damage, such as numbness or tingling in the extremities
- Muscle tension, spasms, locking-up, or a giving-out sensation in your back
DDD is diagnosed based on symptoms reported to your doctor along with an in-office physical examination and detailed patient history, which your doctor will take by asking you questions about your daily habits and prior medical conditions. Your doctor may also order an X-ray to have a clearer picture of the state of your spine.
What is the treatment for DDD?
There is no cure for degenerative disc disease, but there are steps you can take to alleviate symptoms. Potential treatment may include:
- Physical therapy. A licensed physical therapist can help you strengthen muscle groups to compensate for the stress put on your spine.
- Chiropractic care. Manual manipulation, often associated with chiropractic care, can assist with spinal realignment and relieve built-up pressure along the spine.
- OTC pain medications. Acetaminophen, Advil, naproxen, and ibuprofen can all help manage pain caused by DDD. Talk with your doctor to ensure taking one of these medications doesn’t interfere with other medications you may be taking.
- Prescription pain medications. If you are experiencing severe pain that does not respond well to OTC medications, prescription pain medication may help. Discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.
- Heat and cold therapy. Heat therapy increases blood circulation, which can relax the muscles, whereas cold therapy can help reduce inflammation and alleviate mild pain.
- Steroid injections. Epidural steroid injections, or ESIs, are injections in the area surrounding the spine. The effectiveness of ESIs varies from patient to patient, but they can alleviate pain for several weeks or even up to a year.
- Disc surgery. If DDD leads to a herniated disc and it has not responded well to nonsurgical treatment, your doctor may recommend a discectomy. During a discectomy, neurosurgeons remove all or part of the damaged intervertebral disc. Learn more.
Why choose NGPG?
NGPG Neuroscience employs a team of board-certified neurologists, neurosurgeons, neurointerventional surgeons, neuropsychiatrists, and other specialists that will work to develop a treatment plan for DDD that is right for you. Our physicians provide high-quality care and up-to-date treatments through our two outpatient Neurology office locations. For imaging and surgical care, we partner with the Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s, ensuring our patients’ access to all the services of a leading hospital alongside our excellent outpatient care.
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