Degenerative disc disease is not really a disease. It's a term used to describe the normal changes in your spinal discs as you age. Spinal discs are small, spongy discs that separate the bones (vertebrae) that make up the spine. The discs act as shock absorbers for the spine, so it can flex, bend, and twist.
Degenerative disc disease can take place in one or more places along the spine. It most often occurs in the discs in the lower back and the neck.
As we age, our spinal discs break down, or degenerate. This breakdown causes the symptoms of degenerative disc disease in some people.
When the discs break down, they can lose fluid and dry out, and their outer layers can have tiny cracks or tears. This leads to less padding and less space between the bones in the spine. The body reacts to this by making bony growths on the spine called bone spurs. These spurs can press on the spinal nerve roots or spinal cord. This can cause pain and can affect how well the nerves work.
Many people with degenerative disc disease have no pain. But others have severe pain or other symptoms that limit their activities. Some of the most common symptoms are:
A doctor can often diagnose degenerative disc disease while doing a physical examination. If your examination shows no signs of a serious condition, imaging tests (such as an X-ray) aren't likely to help your doctor find the cause of your symptoms.
Sometimes degenerative disc disease is found when an X-ray is taken for another reason, such as an injury or other health problem. But even if the doctor finds degenerative disc disease, that doesn't always mean that you will have symptoms.
There are several things you can do at home to manage pain from this problem.
If you have constant or severe pain in your back or spine, you may need other treatments, such as physiotherapy. In some cases, your doctor may suggest surgery.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
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Current as of: September 20, 2018
Steven J. Atlas MD, MPH - Internal Medicine & Kenneth J. Koval MD - Orthopedic Surgery, Orthopedic Trauma
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