Is your back pain due to degenerative disc disease?

February 7, 2020

degenerative disc disease

Degenerative Disc Disease

According to the Arthritis Foundation, a very basic definition of degenerative disc disease is: “back pain caused by worn-down vertebral discs.” There’s a little more to the story than that, so in this blog post we will talk about what exactly this means, plus possible causes, symptoms, treatment, and how the doctors at Southside Pain Specialists may be able to help.

Causes of degenerative disc disease

If you examine a young, healthy back with no degenerative issues, you will see rubbery discs between the vertebrae. These discs provide height and allow you to bend and twist. 

As we age, our discs begin to wear down. In fact, after age 40, most people have some disc degeneration. This is a normal process of aging and does not always result in pain. However, sometimes the discs wear away completely causing bones to rub against each other. When this happens, you may experience pain and stiffness. 

We love how Johns Hopkins Medicine describes it. They recommend thinking of discs as cream-filled or jelly-filled donuts. The disc outside is firm, but the inside is filled with a softer, jelly-like substance. This makes the disc compressible so the bones don’t experience too much stress. As you get older, the jelly part of the disc begins to dry up. 

According to Johns Hopkins, the exact reason why the joints of the spine begin to wear out is not known definitively and may be a result of a combination of factors, such as:

  • Drying out of the disc with age
  • Tears in the outer portion of the disc due to daily activities and sports
  • Injury
  • Doing a lot of lifting
  • Having a family history of spine problems

When it comes to injuries, there is very little blood supply to the disc. This is unlike other tissues of the body and means that once a disc is injured, it cannot repair itself. The result is disc deterioration.

 Symptoms of degenerative disc disease

Typically, someone experiencing disc degeneration has symptoms found in the lower back or neck. The pain may:

  • Range from mild to severe or disabling
  • Extend to the arms and hands
  • Radiate to the buttocks and thighs
  • Worsen when sitting or after bending, lifting, or twisting
  • Come and go
  • Cause weakness in the leg muscles or foot drop, which may be a sign of damage to the nerve root

Diagnosis & treatment of degenerative disc disease

To diagnose degenerative disc disease, our doctors review your medical history and conduct a physical exam. We may order imaging tests, such as X-rays, a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI), or a computed tomography (CT) scan, to get a better look at the discs and bony structures to help us make a diagnosis.

If we do diagnose you with degenerative disc disease, treatment will focus on strengthening the muscles that support the back and relieving symptoms as much as possible. This may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, naproxen sodium) or pain relievers (acetaminophen)
  • Injections of corticosteroids into the disc space
  • Surgery, such as artificial disc replacement or a spinal fusion

While we have several treatment options available, there are also several measures you can take in addition to these medical therapies. We highly recommend that all our patients take a proactive role in treatment by doing some or all of the following:

  • Heat and cold therapy
  • Physical therapy exercises at home
  • Modifying activities that aggravate your back while staying as active as possible
  • Stop smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

While living an overall healthy lifestyle will help, sometimes disc degeneration worsens for no apparent reason. This is where the doctors at Southside Pain Specialists come in. We will be able to figure out exactly what is happening in your spine and recommend a pain management treatment plan tailored to your situation. Give us a call at 205.332.3155 or contact us to learn more!