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Degenerative Disc Disease

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Definition

Discs lie between the spinal bones (vertebra). They serve as shock absorbers. This protects the spine and helps it stay flexible. Degenerative disc disease is wear and tear on these discs. This wear and tear causes pain and other symptoms. Some degeneration is normal as you age. Not all degeneration will result in symptoms of this disease.

Degenerative Disc
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Causes

The disc loses fluid and is not as resilient as normal. The fibrous tissue, which holds the disc material in place, may suffer small tears. These tears lead to further damage. There is some evidence that genetics may play a part for some people.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance for degenerative disc disease:

  • Increased age
  • Family history of degenerative disc disease
  • Sports
  • Back injury
  • Smoking
  • Heavy physical work
  • Obesity

Symptoms

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:

  • Pain in the low back, buttocks, thighs, or neck
  • Pain that worsens when sitting, bending, lifting, or twisting
  • Pain that feels better when walking, changing positions, or lying down
  • Periods of severe pain that gets better after a few days or months
  • Numbness and tingling into the legs
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Inability to raise the foot at the ankle

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Images may be taken of the disc and surrounding area. This can be done with:

  • MRI scan
  • X-ray
  • Discography

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests

Your nerves may be evaluated. This can be done with an electromyogram and nerve conduction studies.

Treatment

Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Treatment options include:

Physical Therapy

Therapy for this condition is focused on teaching you how to manage your back pain. This may involve:

  • Posture training
  • Exercise
  • Ice packs
  • Heating
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Relaxation
  • Other forms of physical therapy

Injections

Steroid injections may be used for some short term pain relief. They are injected around the nerves exiting the spinal cord.

Surgery

Surgery may be required for some. Surgery may involve removing the degenerated disc and fusing two of the vertebra together.

Prevention

Take the following steps to help protect your spine:

  • Begin a safe exercise program with the advice of your doctor.
  • Maintain a healthy weight .
  • If you have osteoporosis , follow your doctor's instructions for treating the condition.
  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit.
  • If possible, make changes to your workplace to reduce symptoms.

Revision Information

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

    http://orthoinfo.aaos.org

  • North American Spine Society

    http://www.spine.org

  • Canadian Orthopaedic Association

    http://www.coa-aco.org

  • Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation

    http://www.canorth.org

  • Bogduk N, Anat D. Degenerative joint disease of the spine. Radiol Clin North Am. 2012;15(4):613-28.

  • Paassilta P, Lohiniva J, Göring HH, et al. Identification of a novel common genetic risk factor for lumbar disk disease. JAMA. 2001;285:1843-1849.

  • Urban J, Roberts S. Degeneration of the intervertebral disc. Arthritis Res. Ther. 2003;5(3):120-130.