Managing Degenerative Disc Disease

Back pain is one of the most common reasons behind visits to the doctor every year, with countless Americans suffering from some degree of discomfort. Often the problem resolves itself within a number of days or weeks, but for many people, chronic, recurring back pain has a significant effect on their ability to enjoy a normal, active life.

There are many different causes of back pain. One of the most common, particularly amongst people over the age of 40, is degenerative disc disease.

What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is the name given to an age-related condition that affects the spine. The spine is made up of a column of bones known as vertebrae.

Between each vertebra is a small, flat cushion called an intervertebral disc. These discs have several purposes, from acting as shock absorbers for the spine when we walk or place any type of stress on the spinal column, to enabling us to bend and twist.

Over time, the discs undergo a large amount of stress, meaning that some wear and tear is inevitable. The rate at which this happens can vary from patient to patient, but typically by the time we reach our 40s, most of us have already experienced some degree of degenerative disc disease.

How are the intervertebral discs affected?

Intervertebral discs are generally affected by age in two ways. Firstly, they begin to dehydrate. When we are first born, these discs are full of water but over time they lose this moisture, causing them to become thinner and less able to facilitate bending/twisting or absorb impacts.

Secondly, the daily wear and tear placed on the discs can cause damage to the outer wall of the disc, which is packed with nerve endings. Once the damage reaches the nerves, it can cause the patient to experience pain. Similarly, the damage may enable the soft, inner gel of the disc to leak out, causing herniation. Herniated discs can irritate surrounding nerves in the spinal column, causing pain and other symptoms.

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease

Some people can live with degenerative disc disease without ever experiencing any real symptoms. However, those who do become affected by side effects of the condition can expect to experience back pain that:

  • Primarily affects their lower back, buttocks, or upper thighs
  • Causes neurological symptoms such as tingling or numbness in your legs and sometimes your arms
  • Gets worse when you bend, twist, or lift
  • Get worse when you sit down, but eases once you start to move around
  • Improves if you lie down or change position
  • Comes and goes, lasting anywhere from 24 hours to several months
  • Causes your leg muscles to feel weak

How to manage degenerative disc disease

In many cases, with the support of a spine specialist, degenerative disc disease can be adequately managed without the need for surgery. This usually requires a combination of therapies including the following:

Pain medications for degenerative disc disease

Pain relief is a key tool for relief from back pain and can help patients manage their symptoms much more effectively. The use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) is recommended to help alleviate swelling as well as reduce discomfort. NSAIDs along with regular paracetamol-based drugs can be bought over the counter. However, if these prove ineffective, we may be able to prescribe something stronger.

Steroid injections

Steroids have been shown to be effective in reducing inflammation. We may suggest steroids if you cannot obtain sufficient relief using NSAIDs. Exactly where your steroid injection is placed will depend on the source of your pain and where the majority of the swelling is occurring. However, steroid injections can have some side effects, and so we will recommend that these are given on a strict, pre-planned schedule to minimize any negative impact they might have.

TENS machine

Although they are most commonly seen for labor pains, TENS machines have also been shown to be effective in helping to relieve the lower back pain experienced by patients with degenerative disc disease.

Physical therapy exercises

As with all back injuries, physical therapy has been shown to improve blood flow and reduce muscle stiffness. Physical therapy can be delivered either as therapeutic lower back massage or chiropractic manipulations. Our doctor will be able to refer you to an experienced and compassionate practitioner.

Manage your lifestyle

Our lifestyle can have a much more significant effect on our general health than many of us fully realize, and there are certain changes that you can make that will help you to manage the effects of degenerative disc disease. These include giving up smoking, which will improve blood circulation and aid healing, and ensuring that you are a healthy weight. This is because excess weight can put added strain on the spine and surrounding muscles, putting you at greater risk of back problems.

Surgery for degenerative disc disease

If you are unable to relieve your symptoms using the therapies described above, we may refer you for surgery. Lumbar spinal fusion is considered to be the go-to surgical treatment for degenerative disc disease. This treatment involves the fusion of two vertebrae to reduce the friction between them caused by the damaged disc.

Alternatively, we may recommend a discectomy. This is a surgical procedure that removes the damaged disc in order to alleviate any pain that the patient is experiencing.

If you are considering surgery for degenerative disc disease, your doctor will talk you through the options open to you in greater detail and work with you to find the most suitable solution for your circumstances.

​​​​​​​If you would like to learn more about degenerative disc disease, our experienced and professional team would be pleased to assist you. Call New York Spine & Sports Surgery today at 516-794-2990 to learn more.