Although it’s a normal part of the aging process, degenerative disc disease can cause painful symptoms. Fortunately, there are minimally invasive treatment options that help provide relief and keep you active.
What Is Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)?
Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is part of the natural process of growing older. As we age, our intervertebral discs lose their flexibility, elasticity, and shock absorbing characteristics. The outer fibers that surround the disc, called the annulus fibrosis, become brittle and are more easily torn. At the same time, the soft gel-like center of the disc, called the nucleus pulposus, starts to dry out and shrink. The combination of damage to the intervertebral discs, the development of bone spurs and the gradual thickening of the ligaments that support the spine can all contribute to degenerative arthritis of the lumbar spine.
To a certain degree, this process happens to everyone. However, not everyone who has degenerative changes in their lumbar spine has pain. Many people who have "normal" backs have MRIs that show disc herniations, degenerative changes, and narrowed spinal canals. Every patient is different, and it is important to realize that not everyone develops symptoms as a result of degenerative disc disease.
What Are The Symptoms Of Degenerative Disc Disease?
When degenerative disc disease becomes painful or symptomatic, it can cause several different symptoms due to the compression of the nerve roots. Depending on where your degenerative disc is located, it could cause
- Back pain
- Radiating leg pain
- Neck pain
- Radiating arm pain
These symptoms are caused by the fact that worn out discs are a source of pain because they do not function as well as they once did, and as they shrink, the space available for the nerve roots also shrinks. As the discs between the intervertebral bodies start to wear out, the entire lumbar spine becomes less flexible. The result can be back pain and stiffness, especially towards the end of the day.
How Is Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosed?
The diagnosis of degenerative disc disease begins with a complete physical examination. Your doctor will examine your back for flexibility, range of motion, and the presence of certain signs that suggest your nerve roots are being affected by degenerative changes in your back. This often involves testing the strength of your muscles and your reflexes to make sure that they are still working normally. You will often be asked to fill out a diagram that asks you where your symptoms of pain, numbness, tingling and weakness are occurring.
A series of x-rays is also usually ordered for a patient with back pain. If degenerative disc disease is present, the x-rays will often show a narrowing of the spaces between the vertebral bodies, which indicates the disc has become very thin or has collapsed. Bone spurs also can form around the edges of the vertebral bodies and also around the edges of the facet joints in the spine. These bone spurs can be seen on an x-ray, and are also called osteophytes. As the disc collapses and bone spurs form, the space available for the nerve roots starts to shrink. The nerve roots exit the spinal canal through a bony tunnel called the neural foramen, and it is at this point that the nerve roots are especially vulnerable to compression.
In many situations, doctors will order a MRI or a CT scan (CAT scan) to evaluate the degenerative changes in the lumbar spine more completely. A MRI is very useful for determining where disc herniations have occurred and where the nerve roots are being compressed. A CT scan is often used to evaluate the bony anatomy in the spine, which can show how much space is available for the nerve roots and within the neural foramina and spinal canal.
How Is Degenerative Disc Disease Treated?
Your doctor will discuss with you the treatment options appropriate for your diagnosis.
For most people who do not have evidence of nerve root compression with muscle weakness, conservative, non-surgical therapies, such as medication, rest, exercise and physical therapy, are typically recommended.
Surgery is offered only after conservative treatment has have failed to adequately relieve the symptoms of pain, numbness and weakness over a significant period of time.
The benefits of spine surgery, however, must be weighed against the risks. Your surgeon will be able to discuss the risks and benefits of surgery with you, and the likely results of operative versus non-operative treatment.
What is Low Back Pain?
The lower back consists of the lower (lumbar) spine, which connects to the upper body. This part of the back gives us strength and mobility. 4 out of 5 adults will at some point have low back pain. It is the second most common cause of people missing work (only after the common cold). Lower back pain exists in 2 types. The first is called mechanical pain. This is the type of pain associated with disc, joint, ligament, and muscle problems or injuries. The second type of pain is compressive pain. This is associated with nerve roots in the spine that are pinched. These types of pain can initiate from irritated large nerve roots, small nerves, back muscles, bones, ligaments, and joints, and the intervertebral disc. Relief will come in about 2 weeks for 50% of those with low back pain. 90% of patients with this type of pain will have relief within 3 months. In about 5-10%, the pain will become chronic.
What causes Low Back Pain?
There are many causes of back pain. Often times it can be of a musculoskeletal nature and sometimes nerves can be involved. Many nerves exit the back to feed the legs and nerve involvement can cause numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness. The most popular causes of low back pain are strains and sprains. If the back muscles are not conditioned properly, or are overworked, that is considered a strain. If a tight or weak ligament sustains a strong force, that is called a sprain. Other conditions can factor in to the cause of low back pain such as poor conditioning, improper use, obesity, and smoking. Age can also be a natural cause of low back pain. While aging, there is a decreased amount of bone, and a decrease in the strength and elasticity of muscles and of ligaments.
How is Low Back Pain diagnosed?
The diagnosis of low back pain begins with a physical exam, usually of the spine and legs. Studies such as EMGs, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and bone scans may be performed to diagnose some of the causes of low back pain.
How is Low Back Pain treated?
Some medications can be prescribed to eliminate the pain and inflammation associated with low back pain. Activity modification is usually the starting point to a healthy recovery. The best treatment is aimed at strengthening the muscles in the back and working to maintain that strength. Rehabilitation programs and surgery may also be needed in some instances of low back pain. Of course, the best treatment is to prevent the low back pain before it starts. This can be done by maintaining a regular exercise program, a healthy weight, proper posture, and by lifting and moving correctly.
Used with permission by AANEM
Click on the topics below to find out more from the Orthopaedic connection website of American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
- Spine Basics
- Back Pain in Children
- Fracture of the Thoracic and Lumbar Spine
- Herniated Disk
- Herniated Disk in the Lower Back
- Low Back Pain
- Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis
- Adult Spondylolisthesis in the Low Back
- Kyphosis (Roundback) of the Spine
- Low Back Pain
- Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
- Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis
- Low Back Pain Exercise Guide
- Spinal Injections
- Spine Conditioning Program
- Treatment Options for Low Back Pain (video)
- Backpack Safety
- Preventing Back Pain at Work and at Home
- Preventing Back Pain: Tips for New Moms
- Muscle Cramp