FAQ’s on Degenerative Disc Disease
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
The term degenerative disc disease (DDD) does not indicate a disease in the traditional sense, but is instead a collective term given to the changes regularly experienced in the discs of the spine as a person ages. A spinal disc is a soft, sponge-like component separating the spinal vertebrae. Discs act as a shock absorber, assisting the spine during periods of movement by giving the vertebrae something soft to compress into.
As people age, these discs can be worn out through use and potentially result in injury to the area. DDD can occur at any level of the spine, but occurs most commonly in either the lumbar discs (lower spine) or the cervical discs (neck).
What are the causes of Degenerative Disc Disease?
The most basic cause of DDD is age. As the discs see usage, they are gradually worn down meaning that the older a person is, the more likely it is that their discs have been worn down and become more susceptible to injury. Spinal discs each contain fluid, which allows them to function. As patients age, this fluid is gradually lost which can narrow the disc or cause injury to the disc. A disc that has narrowed is removing a crucial part of spinal support for the vertebrae that house it, which can lead to injury if vertebrae begin to rub against one another during movement.
Certain individuals may be more predisposed to DDD, as the risk of a patient having the condition is increased if it has been seen in other family members. A number of occupations may also increase the likelihood of premature degeneration, with the primary caused being occupations where the patient is forced into a seated position for extended periods of time.
Patients who have suffered a damaged disc are more likely to experience early degeneration as well.
What are the symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?
The primary symptom with DDD is pain in the area of the degenerated disc. The severity of pain found with DDD can vary immensely from patient to patient, with some patients feeling nothing and others experiencing pain in debilitating levels who require immediate medical attention. Symptoms will also be based on where the disc is located, with arm and shoulder pain attributed to cervical discs. Damaged cervical discs can also cause weakness in the arms and hands, which is indicative of a compressed cervical spinal nerve root.
DDD in the lumbar discs can produce similar symptoms, but with the weakness or pain found in the buttocks and legs instead.
How is Degenerative Disc Disease diagnosed?
Diagnosis is achieved through a combination of the patients’ medical history, a thorough physical exam, and imaging techniques to examine the spine. The symptoms being experienced by the patient will be the first step into identification of the cause, as the location of symptoms is a strong indicator of where the damaged disc is.
An X-ray will be used to examine the spine for signs of damaged, with an MRI used to examine the soft tissue surrounding the disc to check for potentially compressed nerves. The largest diagnostic tool used for DDD is a discrogram, which is an injection of fluid into a suspected disc to see if the symptomatic pain being experienced re-occurs. If so, it is very likely that the injected disc is the culprit.
What are the treatment options for Degenerative Disc Disease?
The treatments available to patients will be based on the progression of DDD in their spine. With minor progression, symptoms can be treated simply by ice or heat over the disc. Painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications can also be taken. Patients with moderate progression may be able to obtain relief through chiropractor treatment, spinal decompression therapy, or acupuncture. Spinal injections can also provide relief for patients, which are typically used when there are one or more affected nerves in addition to disc pain.