Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common conditions we see in our office on a regular basis. As the name implies, the condition develops after your spinal discs have begun to degenerate due to wear and tear. If you’ve been an active individual throughout your life, odds are you have some natural disc degeneration. Also, don’t think you can avoid the condition by being inactive, because inactivity leads to weak discs.
Disc degeneration is a perfectly normal process and for many, they don’t experience any symptoms associated with the condition. Problems develop when these discs shift or compress nearby nerves or spinal structures. Compression can lead to pain, numbness, radiating discomfort, limited mobility, gait issues and pain that seems to come and go in waves. As we noted above, it is often caused by natural degeneration of the healthy disc, but it can also be brought on by acute trauma, like from a car accident, sports injury or fall.
Diagnosing and Treating Degenerative Disc Disease
Although degenerative disc disease is one of the most common problems that causes back pain in adults over the age of 40, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to diagnose. For starters, none of the symptoms of degenerative disc disease are unique, meaning it’s impossible to tell whether you are dealing with degenerative disc disease or another condition, like a spinal tumor. Also, since degenerative disc disease can cause different individual problems, one patient with the condition may be battling a pinched nerve, while the other needs help with a herniated disc.
Because of this, a hands-on diagnosis provided by a spine specialist is key. Your doctor will begin by listening to your symptoms, checking your medical history and performing some physical manipulation tests to see what actions cause symptoms to appear or resolve. From there, they will confirm the diagnosis with the help of an imaging test. Most times, an X-ray will suffice, but other options like an MRI or CT scan may also be used.
If you are diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, your doctor will walk you through your non-surgical options. Non-operative treatment methods will focus on relieving the underlying cause of pain, like freeing the compressed nerve, and strengthening the discs to prevent further degeneration. This is often achieved using a combination of techniques, including physical therapy, rest, exercise, anti-inflammatory medications and targeted stretching techniques, but your specific course of treatment will be dictated by your exact condition.
Cervical Disc Surgery
If conservative care fails to provide relief, surgery may be on the table. In most cases, a spine surgeon can perform a minimally invasive, motion preservation operation to free the compressed structure and stabilize the spine. Decompressive operations have a very high rate of success, and because they can be performed laparoscopically, recovery times are shortened and there is a reduced likelihood of complication. Your surgeon will walk you through the benefits and risks of your specific operation should surgery become necessary.
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