After an injury, some discs become painful because of inflammation, and the pain comes and goes. Some people have nerve endings that penetrate more deeply into the outer layer of the disc, making them more susceptible to becoming a source of pain. Degenerative disc disease can lead to a chronic debilitating condition and can have a serious negative impact on a person’s quality of life. When pain from degenerative disc disease is severe, traditional non-operative treatment may be ineffective.
The discs of the vertebrae undergo the most serious age-related changes of all connective tissues. For many people, those changes are not a problem, but in certain individuals, disc degeneration leads to spinal instability – a condition that is referred to as degenerative disc disease (DDD).
The discs of the vertebrae are gel-like cushions partly composed of cartilage that separate each segment of the spine. Over time, the water and protein content of that cartilage changes. Those changes result in weaker, more fragile discs that gradually deteriorate, leading to DDD.
The most common symptom of DDD is localized pain. For most people, pain is continuous but tolerable, with occasional flares (periods of more intense pain) that last a few days. DDD pain is commonly centered on the lower back, although it can radiate to the hips or legs. Symptoms are frequently worse when sitting because discs experience a heavier load than when standing, walking or lying down. Certain movements (e.g., bending or twisting) may exacerbate the symptoms of DDD.
When a physical examination suggests DDD, imaging tests such as MRI or CT scans are frequently used to diagnose DDD. Imagery tests help to confirm the presence of DDD as well as identify the location of the affected disc. Imaging studies will also help to identify other conditions that may be causing the symptoms.
Many patients with DDD respond well to non-operative forms of treatment such as physical therapy, chiropractic therapy, or non-surgical spinal decompression therapy. However, surgery may be necessary in other cases and/or when more-conservative management fails. Depending on the location, surgery to remove disc material can be performed from the front, side or back. When necessary, an entire disc can be replaced with an implant that helps to restore the normal disc height. Titanium implants may also be used to provide additional stability.
The prognosis of DDD is generally positive, although it can vary depending on the severity of the condition and the nature of the treatment. Patients who respond well to conservative methods of treatment may heal completely. For patients with more severe DDD, surgical repair can significantly improve the quality of life.
If you think you might be a victim of degenerative disc disease, don’t wait until it has a serious negative impact on your quality of life. Contact one of our knowledgeable physicians at the Florida Spine Institute today.
Kishner S. (2014). Degenerative Disk Disease. Medscape. Available at: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1265453-overview. Last accessed December 4, 2014.
Degenerative Disc Disease (2009). American Spinal Decompression Association. Available at: http://www.americanspinal.com/degenerative-disc-disease.html. Last accessed December 4, 2014.