What is degenerative disc disease?

You actually don’t have to be that old in order to have an aching back. Degenerative disc disease can occur in people as young as 20, but it more typically affects older people.

If you have chronic back or neck pain, you may have degenerative disc disease. http://www.spineuniverse.com/displayarticle.php/article4020.htmlIt is not really correct to call this degenerative spinal condition a disease – it’s the normal wear and tear process of aging on your spine. Unfortunately, as aging occurs, the pillow-like pads between the bones in the spine (intervertebral discs) lose their flexibility, elasticity and shock absorbing characteristics. When this happens, the discs change from being supple and flexible with fluid movement, to being stiff and rigid with restricted movement.

People with degenerative disc disease generally have ongoing back or neck pain, with occasional flares of acute pain when their ‘back goes out.’ Degenerative disc disease can affect any part of the spine.

Common symptoms include:

? More pain when sitting for a long time, bending, lifting, or twisting

? Less pain when walking

? Less pain if you change positions frequently

? Less pain when you lie down


The spine is made up of 25 vertebrae (bones). There are discs between each of the vertebra that act like shock absorbers. Each disc is made up of a tire-like outer band and a gel-like inner substance. Together, the vertebrae and the discs provide a protective tunnel (the spinal canal) to house the spinal cord and spinal nerves. These nerves run down the center of the vertebrae and exit to various parts of the body.

Causes of degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease can be associated with an injury to the back, or it may just be a sign of aging. Long before proof of degenerative disc disease can be seen with imaging tests (X-ray, CT, and MRI), biochemical and cellular changes have already occurred. The degenerative changes of disc disease occur very gradually.

In the early phases of degenerative disc disease fibrosis (hardening) and collapse of the disc may make it difficult for you to move your back freely. You may have low back painhttp://www.spineuniverse.com/displayarticle.php/article3900.html and possibly leg pain if a nerve is squeezed; this feeling is frequently associated with degenerative disc disease.

Over time, the collagen (protein) structure of the annulus fibrosus changes. Additionally, water-attracting molecules in the discs decrease causing the disc to ‘dry out’. Both of these changes reduce the disc’s ability to handle back movement. It is this process that causes loss of disc height, and ultimately loss of a person’s overall height!

As degenerative disc disease progresses, structures fold and buckle and bone spurs form. This can cause a narrowing of the space for the spinal cord and nerves, and can put pressure on the nerves in the low back.

Exams and tests for degenerative disc disease

An X-ray can show narrowed disc space, fractures, bone spurs or arthritis, which might indicate degenerative disc disease. A computerized axial tomography scan (a CT or CAT scan) or a magnetic resonance imaging test (an MRI) can show bulging discs and herniations.

Non-surgical treatments for degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease is relatively common in aging adults and seldom requires surgery. In fact, although 80 per cent of adults will experience back pain, only one to two per cent will need surgery. When medical attention is needed, the majority of patients respond well to non-surgical forms of treatment, and recovery occurs in about six weeks.

Extended bed rest is no longer recommended for back pain. Mild activity is preferred for better healing such as walking or pool exercises.

There are a variety of treatments for degenerative disc disease. Such treatment includes cold or heat therapy, deep tissue massage, electrical stimulation and ultrasound. These treatments help prepare you for exercise – the most important part of your recovery.

Chiropractic adjustments help improve spinal function, which reduces pain and restores joint mobility. Acupuncture can help control pain, but it should be combined with other treatments.

Degenerative disc disease prevention

Lifestyle changes are the best road to wellness. If you smoke, now is the time to stop. Smoking negatively impacts the process of healing. If you are overweight, now is the time to lose weight. Patients who are obese tend to have more early degenerative problems with their spine.

Being aware of your back and its relation to overall body health can help you live a more pain-free life. Some back problems can be lessened with simple measures:

? Sit and stand properly

? Exercise regularly (gentle weight-bearing exercise is especially good)

? Attain and maintain a healthy weight

? Stop smoking

? Lift safely, using the knees

Degenerative disc disease can be managed, and the pain associated with it reduced. With proper care, your back will serve you well for many years to come. Treat it right and enjoy the benefits of a healthy spine no matter what your age.

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