FAQ’s on Degenerative Disc Disease

The very first thing a patient needs to know about this condition is that it is not in fact a disease in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, the name of this condition is derived by a set of common symptoms that patients may experience. Due to the wide variety of ways these symptoms may manifest in the patient, degenerative disc disease is a blanket title given to the conditions that arise.

The discs of the spine are soft, spongy like objects that are located between each vertebrae of the spine. These act as a cushion for the spine during movement, providing support for the vertebrae and preventing the bones from rubbing against each other. Degenerative disc disease is the gradual degradation of these discs as a patient ages, and primarily occurs in either the cervical (neck) or lumbar (lower back) discs of the body.

What causes Degenerative Disc Disease?

The cause of this condition is something faced by patients ever day of their lives: growing older. Wear and tear accumulate on the discs every time a person moves to do everyday activities.

The more advanced the age, the more damage has slowly accumulated over time in the discs. The discs function effectively with the help of an inner gel-like fluid contained that allows them to function as support for the spine, which is slowly lost over time as well.

As this fluid is lost, the shape of the disc can change to reflect the lowered amount. When the discs narrow in this fashion, the space it has created in-between each vertebrae is reduced. This may result in the vertebrae moving against one another as a person moves, leading to damage suffered by the bones of the spine. The discs themselves also become weaker as this fluid is lost, leading to an increased chance of disc injury in the form of herniation or bulging.

The symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

The most common symptom of this condition is pain in the location of the damaged disc. The Pain experienced by the patient will vary in each case of this condition, with some patients feeling no pain and others feeling severe pain that affects their quality of life. Symptoms will vary based on the location of the damaged disc– with lumbar discs causing symptoms in the lower back and legs and cervical disc causing symptoms in the neck and arms of a patient.

How is Degenerative Disc Disease diagnosed?

Diagnosis is performed by physically examing the patient and an evaluation of their medical history combined with a recount of the events leading up to the symptoms (to rule out direct injury). Any symptoms that can be linked to nerve compression will be noted during this time. The remaining diagnostic tests vary depending on the symptoms the patient exhibits.

Imaging tests will be used to examine the spine itself in a search for damage that may have been sustained due to a damaged disc, primarily to examine if bone spurs have formed or if the vertebrae have shifted at all (a narrowed disc can lead to one or more vertebrae collapsing together).This will initially include plain x-rays and then possibly an MRI.

If a disc is thought to be damaged after the imaging tests, a discogram test may be performed on the patient to confirm exactly which disc is the cause of symptoms so it may be treated. Along with the discogram test, Dallas pain clinics also typically obtain a CT scan too.

Treatment options for Degenerative Disc Disease

For patients who have only minor degenerative disc disease, treatment can be as simple as warm or cold compresses to the area and medication for relief.

Nonoperative pain relief options may include:

  • Medications – NSAIDS, Tylenol, Prescription pain creams/patches, opiates.
  • Physical Therapy/Chiropractic
  • Acupuncture
  • TENS Units, Electrical Stimulation, Bracing
  • Disc Injections – Steroid, PRP, Stem Cells
  • Facet Blocks, Medial Branch Blocks – if there is associated facet related pain.
  • Radiofrequency ablation  – long term relief for facet related pain.

With spinal fusion as a last resort, patients should make all attempts at conservative treatment. It’s an elective procedure, with success rates hovering around 50-60%.