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What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

 

Degenerative disc disease is not really a disease but a term used to describe the normal changes in your spinal discs as you age. Spinal discs are soft, compressible discs that separate the interlocking bones (vertebrae) that make up the spine. The discs act as shock absorbers for the spine, allowing it to flex, bend, and twist. Degenerative disc disease can take place throughout the spine, but it most often occurs in the discs in the lower back (lumbar region) and the neck (cervical region).

 

The changes in the discs can result in back or neck pain and/or:

  • Osteoarthritis, the breakdown of the tissue (cartilage) that protects and cushions joints.

  • Herniated disc, an abnormal bulge or breaking open of a spinal disc.

  • Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal camera, the open space in the spine that holds the spinal cord.

These conditions may put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, leading to pain and possibly affecting nerve function.

 

Common concerns related to degenerative disc disease:

  • If I have low back pain from degenerative disc disease in my thirties, how much worse will it become with age?

  • Will the degenerative disc disease become a crippling condition? Will I end up in a wheelchair?

  • Should I restrict my activities?

  • Can I still play sports?

  • Will the degenerative disc disease spread to other parts of the spine?

  • Will the low back pain from degenerative disc disease cause any permanent damage?

The truth about degenerative disc disease:

 

A large part of many patients’ confusion is that the term “degenerative disc disease” sounds like a progressive, very threatening condition. However, this condition is not strictly degenerative and is not really a disease:

  • The term "degenerative", which implies to most people that the symptoms will get worse with age. The term applies to the disc degenerating, but does not apply to the symptoms. While it is true that the disc degeneration is likely to progress over time, the low back pain from degenerative disc disease usually does not get worse and in fact usually gets better over time.

  • Another source of confusion created by the term "disease", which is actually a misnomer. Degenerative disc disease is not really a disease at all, but rather a degenerative condition that at times can produce pain from a damaged disc. For more information view Degenerative Disc Disease Interactive Video.

Disc degeneration is a natural part of aging and over time all people will exhibit changes in their discs consistent with a greater or lesser degree of degeneration. However, not all people will develop symptoms. In fact, degenerative disc disease is quite variable in its nature and severity.

 

Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms:

  • The low back pain is generally made worse with sitting, since in the seated position the lumbosacral discs are loaded three times more than standing.

  • Certain types of activity will usually worsen the low back pain, especially bending, lifting and twisting.

  • Walking, and even running, may actually feel better than prolonged sitting or standing.

  • Patients will generally feel better if they can change positions frequently, and lying down is usually the best position since this relieves stress on the disc space.

Pain from Degenerative Disc Disease

It is not exactly clear why some degenerated discs are painful and some are not. As with many common causes of back pain, there is probably a variety of reasons that discs can become painful. Some theories about pain from degenerative disc disease are:

  • If a disc is injured or degenerated, it may become painful because of the resultant instability from the disc injury, which in turn can lead to an inflammatory reaction which results in low back pain.
  • Some people seem to have nerve endings that penetrate more deeply into the outer annulus than others, and this is thought to make the degenerated disc more susceptible to becoming a pain generator.



 

 
         

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Patient Resources

Anatomy of The Lower Back  -  Misdiagnosing Low Back Pain  -  Functions of The Low Back  -  Before Your Surgery  -  After Spine Surgery

Spine Surgery Questions  -  Anatomy of The Spine  -  Back Pain Definitions  -  Obesity and back pain  -  Orthopedic Surgeons  -  Spine Surgeons

Back Pain Myths  -  Back Pain Medication

 

 

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