As we age, the wear-and-tear on our bodies can start to cause issues like back pain. One condition that affects people as they get older is degenerative disc disease (DDD). Most people will have some disc degeneration after a certain age but not everyone has back pain. There is some research that suggests that developing a painful back condition may be more likely if someone in your family has DDD. What are the causes of this spinal condition and is degenerative disc disease genetic?
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative disc disease is a condition in which one or more of the discs between the vertebrae of the spine breaks down, or “degenerates.” While it is called a disease, it is not an actual disease, but a naturally occurring condition that develops when discs gradually lose flexibility and stop providing sufficient cushion for the spine. Problems like DDD are sometimes referred to as “wear-and-tear” conditions because they are associated with aging or damage due to injury.
Symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary amongst different people. Some experience no noticeable symptoms and some experience intense pain that interrupts their daily life. Some common symptoms of the condition include:
- Back pain or neck pain that is worse when sitting
- Severe pain lasting anywhere between several days and a few months
- Weakness in the leg muscles
- Pain that is relieved by walking or running
- Pain that worsens when bending or twisting
- Getting pain relief from changing positions frequently
- Pain that feels better when lying down
The discs in your spine break down over time due to continuous use. Spinal discs have a low blood supply, making it difficult to repair itself after injury. This leads to degeneration. Discs can be damaged in a few different ways:
- Daily stress caused by physical activity can cause tears in the disc. Most people will have some degeneration because of everyday wear-and-tear by age 60, even if they do not experience pain.
- The disc loses fluid and does not cushion the vertebrae as well. At birth, spinal discs are about 80% water. The discs lose water content as we age, decreasing their effectiveness as shock absorbers.
- Occasional injuries over time contribute to the degeneration of discs, even if the injury is minor.
Is Degenerative Disc Disease Genetic?
This spinal condition is most often associated with aging, but is degenerative disc disease genetic? Within the last decade, studies have been done to determine if there is a hereditary factor involved in the condition. Some data suggests that lumbar disc disease could be inherited. The research concluded that those with immediate family members who have a degenerative disc are more likely to develop the condition themselves. So, the data is not 100% conclusive, but it does indicate that there may be a genetic component to degenerative lumbar disc disease.
Furthermore, the study found a potential link between genetics and the way people perceive the pain caused by the condition. This is in line with other research that indicates that pain tolerance and susceptibility may be inherited as well, even though a pain gene hasn’t been found.
How is it Treated?
A degenerative disc can be treated in a number of ways based on the severity of the condition and the symptoms the patient is experiencing. Treatments start off less invasive at the beginning and become more invasive if other treatments are not effective.
- Exercise and Physical Therapy: If your pain does not prevent you from moving, mobility can be increased by doing certain exercises to strengthen the area surrounding the spine. This can stabilize the affected discs. These exercises include walking, swimming, cycling, yoga, and pilates. You can also go to a physical therapist to learn the proper techniques for walking and lifting with a degenerative disc. The addition of a back brace may also provide relief and increase mobility.
- Medications: Doctors can prescribe different medications to manage symptoms and relieve pain. These can include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), muscle relaxers, analgesics like Tylenol, or steroids. Steroid medications can either be taken orally by the patient or injected into the spine by a doctor under x-ray guidance.
- Surgery: If other treatments are not effective enough, surgery is an option. Common surgeries performed include artificial disc replacement, spinal fusion, and decompression surgery.
- Stem Cell Therapy: Stem cell therapy is a type of regenerative medicine in which stem cells that have the potential to develop into specialized types of cells are injected into the degenerative disc. The injected stem cells stimulate healing and regeneration.
Make an Appointment
Dr. Nael Shanti of Cary Orthopaedics Spine Center is known for providing patients with personalized and compassionate care. Whether you have concerns about degenerative disc disease or another spinal condition, Dr. Shanti can work with you to create a comprehensive treatment plan that’s right for you. To make an appointment with Dr. Shanti, call (919) 297-0000, or request an appointment online.