What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease, also sometimes referred to as DDD, is a relatively common condition that occurs when the fluid-filled discs in the spine begin to breakdown. This tends to happen as a result of age-related wear and tear and can lead to further problems with your back and related parts of the body. Although there is no cure for degenerative disc disease, there are therapies and self-care treatments that can help alleviate your discomfort and reduce the effect that DDD may have on your life.

To better understand degenerative disc disease, it helps to have knowledge of the anatomy of the spine.

The Anatomy of the Spine

The spine is made up of a column of 33 individual bones called vertebra. Between each of these vertebra is a flat, circular disc filled with a naturally-occurring gel. The purpose of this disc is to act as a shock absorber, allowing the spine to accept force without breaking. They also stop the bones from rubbing together and give the spine the flexibility to bend and twist, giving us the full range of movement.

What happens when the discs begin to break down?

Each disc is comprised of a tough, outer wall that hold the gel in place. However, over time the discs begin to break down, becoming thinner and flatter. This means that they are less cushioning and cannot absorb shocks as well, making pain and damage more likely. In addition to this, the stress of day to day movements can cause tiny cracks to appear in the thicker, outer layer. This can affect underlying nerves, triggering pain. If damage continues to occur, the inner gel may protrude through the cracks, causing the disc to bulge or slip out of alignment. If this happens, it is referred to as a herniated disc, and it is a very common occurrence in patients with DDD.

Who is at risk of degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease can affect anyone, but there are certain groups of people who are at greater risk of developing the condition. As the disorder is degenerative, the older you are the more likely you are to experience the effects of DDD.

Other risk factors for degenerative disc disease include:

  • Your genes. If you have direct family members with DDD, you may be more likely to develop the disorder too.
  • Your weight. People who are overweight have additional stress placed on their spine. This could make the discs wear much faster than usual.
  • Repetitive stress can cause excess wear on the discs.
  • Injury/trauma to the spine.

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease

If you have degenerative disc disease, you may experience a range of symptoms that could include:

  • Pain in your back around where the weak disc is
  • Pain that feels worse when you sit down, or when you twist or bend
  • Pain that feels worse when you lift something
  • Pain that feels better when you lie down, or when you stand and walk
  • Pain that spreads into your lower back, buttocks or upper legs
  • Legs that feel week
  • Unusual sensations including tingling and numbness

The symptoms of DDD can come and go, and you may find that you can go weeks or even months with no indication of the disorder at all.

Treatment for degenerative disc disease

There are a range of different treatments that can help to improve the symptoms associated with DDD. Your doctor will almost certainly recommend that you try non-invasive treatments first, which could include pain relief medications, anti-inflammatories and physical therapy. Certain lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, can also help.

However, if regular treatments do not provide enough relief for you, your doctor may refer you for degenerative disc disease surgery. This usually involves a procedure called spinal fusion, in which the damaged disc is removed, and the two vertebrae are instead fused together. In some cases, it may be possible to replace the damaged disc with an artificial replacement.

Degenerative disc disease can be painful debilitating, but with the right treatments, it is possible to manage the disorder and continue enjoying living life to full. Learn more about degenerative disc treatments at New York Spine and Sports Surgery, call 516-289-9300.