Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease typically starts when a small laceration appears in the disc panel, otherwise known as the annulus. These lacerations or tears may result in pain and discomfort. As the laceration or tear heals, it will create scar tissue that is normally as sturdy or durable as the native tissue. In the event that the back is frequently subjected to injury, the disc wall will continue to weaken and scarring and tearing may persist.

Over a period of time, the middle of the disc will become damaged which results in the loss of its fluid. The core of the disc and its water content are essential to maintaining the disc’s functionality as a cushion or spring for the spinal column.

When the core of the disc fails to act as a cushion, the center of the disc collapses. This results in the two vertebrae rubbing together. 

Over time, the vertebrae will form bone spurs. Should these bone spurs develop inside the spinal canal, they will narrow the canal resulting in the pinching of the spinal cord and nerves which is a condition known as spinal stenosis.

How Many People Suffer From This Condition?

In the U.S., back pain is the second most common reason for visiting a physician. Roughly 80% of people will experience some type of back pain over their lifetime. Approximately 5% of people are considered to have chronic back problems.

A study was recently conducted by the Hebrew SeniorLife's Institute for Aging Research and Boston Medical Center. They found that over 30% of people between the ages of 40 and 59 had at least moderate degenerative disc disease. The conditions tend to worsen over time. These conditions are more than 40% more likely to occur in women than men.

Symptoms 

The most common symptom of degenerative disc disease is pain in the neck or back. However, some people with this condition do not experience pain. The following are symptoms of degenerative disc disease. 

  • Pain when twisting, reaching, bending or with movement
  • Pain that limits your daily activities
  • Pain felt from the neck through the arm or hands
  • Pain that radiates down the legs or buttocks
  • Numbness and tingling 
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Pain that lessens with movement such as walking 

Causes

The primary cause of degenerative disc disease is aging. Spinal discs naturally wear down as we age, causing a loss of fluid in our discs. Aging can lead to cracks in our discs as well. 

Those with physically demanding occupations are more likely to develop degenerative disc disease. Smoking and obesity can lead to the condition as well. It can also be caused by injury.

Form of Arthritis

The “wear and tear” that occurs with degenerative disc disease is a type of arthritis occurring in the spinal region. The term arthritis refers to inflammation that causes pain, swelling, or impedes movement. Arthritis may occur at any junction or joint where one bone meets another. 

Juvenile Disc Degeneration 

Some children suffer from degenerative disc disease. Often, these individuals are found to be overweight or obese. Research shows that those with an elevated body mass index are more likely to experience this condition. Many experts believe that genetics may also be a factor. 

Children can incur disc damage due to injury. Many characteristics of the condition are similar in both children and adults, with one key exception. Adults tend to have degeneration in only one or two discs, while children generally have degeneration in many discs. 

Diagnosis

Those who are experiencing neck pain or discomfort in the lumbar spine should promptly seek professional medical attention. Your practitioner should conduct a physical examination and look at your medical history. Any previous issues associated with the cervical spine, discs, or any other bones of the spine should be considered. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is among the best indicators of degenerative disc disease.

Making an accurate diagnosis is often challenging because degenerative disc disease usually develops slowly over several years. Often, your physician will first detect another problem such as a herniated disc. The challenge then is to determine if this problem was caused by degenerative disc disease. 

Physical and Neurological Examinations 

When you are evaluated by our medical professionals we will likely conduct physical and neurological tests. Neurological conditions are those involving the nervous system, which is composed of your nerves, brain, and spinal cord.

Physical examinations begin with identifying where the pain is occurring. Your practitioner may look for indicators such as poor posture, limited motion, and muscle spasms. An examination may involve looking for common symptoms as well as any of the following:  

  • Weaknesses in muscle strength
  • Any responses that occur from touch
  • Responses that occur from various movements
  • Spinal nerve function can be evaluated by testing the reflexes and possibly by applications of heat or cold.
  • Evidence of neurological problems is often seen when pain “spreads” from one region or part of the body to another. 

X-Rays 

An x-ray may be taken to detect evidence of degeneration. The x-ray may reveal reductions in the height of your discs. It may also be a useful tool for making an initial diagnosis. X-rays can help your doctor rule out the existence of a tumor or fracture. 

CT and CAT Scans 

CT and CAT are scans gather data from several x-rays to generate an enhanced image of internal body parts. Narrow beams move through the body capable of creating two and three-dimensional images. This technology helps detect degeneration.

MRI 

MRI is a computer-controlled means of producing higher-quality images compared to x-rays. It uses a magnet and radio waves that allows a physician to evaluate the condition of your tissues. MRIs are a critical tool in determining if disc degeneration exists.

Discogram 

A discogram uses a dye that is injected into your discs that are visible in a CT scan or x-ray. These images may reveal tearing or ruptures by creating pressure on the disc. A discogram is used less frequently, often when an MRI has already been completed. 

Treatment

Types of Prescription Medications 

Prescription-strength non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be effective in minimizing inflammation. A non-narcotic form of oral steroid is another commonly used option. These products are used over a short period of time with the dosage often reducing over several days. Some muscle relaxers have proven to be effective including Soma and Flexeril that reduce spasms and have a sedative effect. 

Physical Therapy 

A treatment regimen of physical therapy is often effective for treating degenerative disc disease and other similar conditions. PT is largely based on using body movement to strengthen muscles, such as those in the back and neck regions. The increase in muscle strength adds support and eases the pressure on the spine.

Surgical Treatment 

Surgical procedures may be considered when more conservative measures are unsuccessful. Surgery may be a solution when there is significant pain that inhibits daily function. Many suffering from degenerative disc disease may experience numbness in the legs and be too weak to stand or walk comfortably. 

Surgery may be considered if a disc has become large enough to create problems with the bladder or bowels. More than 90% of problems with discs will improve to some extent without surgery. Some common procedures that may be used include the following: 

  • Spinal fusion or stabilization: The process of fusion involves merging two vertebrae. It is most commonly performed in the lower back region or in the neck area for strength and support. One potential drawback is that any adjacent discs may respond by degenerating further.
  • Discectomy: This involves removing damaged spinal discs and then performing a spinal fusion to limit movement in that area of the spine.
  • Decompression: This surgical option involves removing a part of a disc to relieve pressure.

Medical Provider for Degenerative Disc Disease in Maricopa and Pinal Counties 

Our specialists at the Arizona Pain and Spine Institute strive to alleviate pain and enhance the quality of life for our patients. Are you suffering from degenerative disc disease? Contact our office today at (480) 986-7246 for an appointment or with any questions. 

Why You Should Reach Out to AZ Pain and Spine

Degenerative disc disease is a pain-related condition. And when it comes to pain, you must only reach out to the specialists. AZ Pain and Spine specializes in providing cutting-edge pain management solutions to various conditions, including degenerative disc disease.

You deserve to live a pain-free life. Make an appointment with us today.