What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

12 June, 2020
Degenerative disc disease is a relatively common disease which affects the spinal column and can force you to avoid physical exercise for a while.
 

Degenerative disc disease isn’t exactly a condition itself. What it is, is a name for different disorders of the lumbar discs that normally occur with aging and the passage of time.

A vertebral disc is part of the spinal column. They’re soft structures that sit between the vertebrae to provide flexibility and act as shock absorbers. They have a soft center and a harder outer portion.

Although any part of the spine can be affected by degenerative disc disease, it’s more common in the cervical and lumbar areas. The vertebral discs in the thoracic section rarely suffer from this problem.

The degeneration of the disc is actually not itself the cause of the symptoms. The problem is that degenerating discs shrink and change shape; this changes the arrangement of the vertebrae.

One of the consequences is osteoarthritis, where the vertebrae come into contact with each other and become welded. Another consequence is a herniated disc, which is where part of the disc protrudes outside the axis of the spinal column and can squeeze nerves.

Finally, there’s a variant of the herniated disc called spinal canal stenosis. This is where the disc protrudes inwards instead of outwards.

Why degenerative disc disease hurts

Possibly the most obvious symptom is the pain. It can be constant and intense and force you to take painkillers to continue with our unavoidable tasks and avoid other tasks altogether.

Lower back pain caused by spinal discs has two origins:

 
  • Lack of stability: with degenerative disc disease, the spine becomes unstable. This instability causes pain due to the abnormality of micromovements.
  • Inflammation: instability and inflammatory substances caused by degeneration irritate the nerves that exit the spinal column.
A woman in the gym suffering lower back pain.

Rather bizarrely, sometimes, the lower back pain can disappear over time seemingly without explanation. This happens because the disc has completely degenerated and tends to disappear.

As a result, there are not more inflammatory substances and no more instability because the bones of the spine acquire a new structure and move differently.

Symptoms

As we’ve already touched on, pain is the main sign of degenerative disc disease, but it’s not just any pain:

  • It’s intensified when trying to lift heavy objects.
  • Decreases when walking.
  • It decreases when lying down, but intensifies when getting up.
  • It can radiate to the arms or legs if a nerve is pinched by inflammation or a herniated disc. This is called radiculopathy and is often the only symptom, even without back pain.

This expected pain – and which many people get used to – shouldn’t make us forget that when warning signs appear, you should go and see your doctor. If your pain doesn’t improve after a few days, if it becomes debilitating, or if you start to suffer from some incontinence, you should see a professional.

 

Treatment for degenerative disc disease

There are three therapeutic options for this condition, and your doctor will be the best person to decide which is best for you. Most people notice an improvement by taking physical measures and perhaps a specific pain reliever. Surgery is mainly for complex cases.

Kinesiology

Controlled exercises and physiotherapy sessions are an essential part of treating degenerative disc disease. The application of heat or cold can also be used as a complementary treatment.

A man receiving physiotherapy for degenerative disc disease.

Medication

Your doctor may prescribe both pure pain relievers, such as paracetamol, as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. Sometimes, a corticosteroid can be added orally or intramuscularly. The science is currently not clear as to whether the use of muscle relaxants is beneficial.

Surgery

In very complex cases where the nerve roots or spinal cord are in serious trouble, the best treatment will be surgery. One technique is arthrodesis to provide the spine with more stability, and another technique is to replace the damaged disc with an artificial one.

Although spinal disc replacement is still a fledgling technique, it already has proven benefits, providing more posterior mobility in the spine than arthrodesis.

 
  • Llopis, E., et al. “La columna cervical degenerativa.” Radiología 58 (2016): 13-25.
  • Boleaga-Durán, Bernardo, and Luis Eduardo Fiesco-Gómez. “Enfermedad degenerativa de la columna lumbosacra. Correlación clínica y por resonancia magnética.” Cirugía y Cirujanos 74.2 (2006): 101-105.
  • Tejeda Barreras, Martín. “Lesiones de columna vertebral lumbar en deportistas.” Ortho-tips 5.1 (2009): 79-87.