Degenerative disc disease is essentially a form of arthritis of the spine that occurs due to a number of reasons. Often, the wear and tear on one’s body and the stresses they place on their spine may lead to this condition but genetics may also play a factor.
An active lifestyle that includes a lot of heavy lifting, a labor-intensive occupation, or even an extremely inactive lifestyle that doesn’t reinforce bone health may lead to one developing this disease as they progress in age. For many, degenerative disc disease may become debilitating as it progresses, causing a lack of range of motion, nerve entrapment, and extreme pain.
As stated, a great deal of compression throughout one’s life can lead to compression of the discs and in turn a degeneration of their absorption properties. In some cases, the space between the vertebrae may collapse, resulting in spinal stenosis.
Degenerative disc disease is often seen in lifelong laborers such as construction workers, ironworkers, and even military service members, who are constantly lifting heavy loads over their head or onto their shoulders. Even the act of jumping in and out of trucks without proper landing mechanics at the hips and knees can cause excess ground reaction forces to be sent through the spinal column, adding excessive stress.
Another factor to consider is the drying out of these discs. The vertebrae of the spinal column contain a gel-like center that is made up primarily of water and helps with shock absorption, especially in humans’ younger years. As we age, these centers slowly decrease in the amount of fluid that they contain, providing for less absorption qualities.
Other factors such as orthopedic injuries to the spine including fractures and facet joint dysfunction may also predispose an individual to develop degenerative disc disease later.
Often, pain is the first symptom that many will experience when dealing with disc degeneration. The muscles around the spine may start to spasm as they work to take on the stability role that the spine normally plays.
Along with this pain is a loss of range of motion. This loss can either occur because the motion aggravates the painful symptoms too much or because rotation, flexion, or extension is not permitted due to the damage that has occurred. This is more common in extreme cases, however.
Another common symptom is nerve pathology. As the discs begin to compress, they may pinch the nerves that exit from either side of the vertebrae. This may cause numbness, tingling, or loss of function at different extremities depending on the location of the nerve entrapment.
Individuals with degenerative disc disease may experience periods of intense pain called flare-ups. Sitting, bending, lifting, or twisting may aggravate the condition and may make the pain worse. Sometimes changing position, walking or lying down can offer relief.
A licensed and trained physician can diagnose degenerative disc disease by reviewing your medical history and conducting a physical examination. You can expect the doctor to ask questions about your symptoms, such as when and where the pain occurs. They will also ask whether you’ve experienced numbness or tingling, if you’ve noticed flareups related to certain situations, and whether you’ve had any falls, injuries or accidents.
Through a physical examination, your provider will assess your muscle strength and pain in response to touch or with motion, as well as your nerve function. If degenerative disc disease is suspected, your doctor may order diagnostic tests such as a CT scan, MRI or discogram.
Treatment options depend on the severity of the degeneration and severity of symptoms.
In minor cases, bracing in addition to rehabilitation may be enough to provide stability to the area and prevent any further progression. In these events, patients must be extremely compliant in order to ensure that the interventions are effective and that symptoms do not progress.
Patients who do not respond to conservative therapies within a few months may be recommended for surgery, particularly patients with debilitating back or leg pain, numbness or weakness in the legs or difficulty standing or walking.
How Dr. Nael Shanti Can Help
Dr. Nael Shanti of Cary Orthopaedics Spine Center specializes in comprehensive nonsurgical and minimally invasive surgical spine care for a variety of spinal conditions including degenerative disc disease. If you or someone you love are experiencing any of the symptoms commonly associated with this condition, call (919) 297-0000 to schedule an appointment.