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Published on July 07, 2021

Signs you may have degenerative disc disease

By Erik Olsson, M.D., spine surgeon
Southeastern Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, a department of Pardee UNC Health Care

When you’re young and healthy, you have rubbery discs between each vertebra in your spine. These discs act as cushions, allowing you to bend, twist and move pain-free. These discs also provide height to the spine. But over time, the discs start to wear down, allowing the bones to rub against one another, leading to osteoarthritis.

We call this process degenerative disc disease, though it’s technically not a disease, but rather age-related wear and tear of the spine. This is a normal part of aging and occurs in most people after age 40, though not everyone experiences symptoms.

What causes degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease can occur if you experience an injury, tear an outer portion of the disc while playing sports or participating in your daily activities, or if your disc dries out with age.

Once a disc in the spine is injured or damaged, it is unable to repair itself. This is because there is very little blood supply to the disc, unlike other places in the body. When the disc is damaged, it can start to deteriorate even further.

Who’s at risk for degenerative disc disease

Certain people are at higher risk for the condition, including those who are very overweight, professional drivers, smokers, gymnasts and people who experience a spine injury.

Signs of degenerative disc disease

The most common signs of degenerative disc disease include pain, stiffness, tingling, numbness and trouble moving. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may come and go. Pain commonly occurs in the lower back and the neck, but it can extend to the hands, arms, buttocks and thighs. You may notice the pain gets worse when you bend, lift, sit or twist.

Sometimes degenerative disc disease can cause weakness in the foot or leg muscles, which can be a sign of nerve root damage.

Degenerative disc disease diagnosis

To determine if you have degenerative disc disease, your doctor will conduct a physical exam, review your medical history and may order an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or a computed tomography (CT) scan.

How it’s treated

Treatment for the condition focuses on relieving pain and strengthening the back muscles. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like naproxen sodium or ibuprofen), pain relievers (like acetaminophen) or cortisone shots.

You can also check with your physician to see if at-home treatments are right for you. These include at-home physical therapy exercises, heat and cold therapy, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and modifying activities that cause back pain, but not becoming sedentary. Sitting too much can make back pain worse.

If these methods don’t help, you may need surgery to treat your symptoms.

Surgical options include artificial disc replacement and spinal fusion. Thanks to robotic technology, many spine procedures are now minimally invasive, which can result in faster recovery, less muscle damage and less blood loss.

Artificial disc replacement involves removing the damaged disc and replacing it with a manufactured device that serves as a cushion in the spine.

During a spinal fusion, the damaged disc is removed, then the vertebrae are joined together for stability using a bone graft from elsewhere on your body or from a deceased donor.

Signs you should see a health care provider

If you have chronic back or neck pain, talk to your primary care provider about your treatment options. To find a provider near you, visit www.pardeehospital.org.

Dr. Olsson is a board-certified, fellowship-trained spine surgeon at Southeastern Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, a department of Pardee UNC Health Care.

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