What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
The first thing a patient must understand about degenerative disc disease (DDD) is that is not the traditional form of a disease, but instead is a collaborative term given to the collection of changes occurring in the spinal discs as patients naturally age.
The spinal discs are normally soft, spongy sacs of mostly fluid located between each level of vertebrae. The discs act as cushions, allowing the vertebrae to fold and bend during spinal movement without damaging the delicate cartilage of the spinal joints.
As patients age, these discs can become damaged due to general wear and tear from movement which may lead to injury. DDD can be found on any level of the spine, but occurs most frequently at the cervical level (the neck) and the lower lumbar levels (the lower back).
What are the causes of Degenerative Disc Disease?
The strongest cause behind the formation of DDD is age. As a disc is used by the spine, it can be gradually worn down to the point of no longer being able to act as a cushion. This means that the older a patient is, the higher the chance of damage occurring to a disc that has become more susceptible over time. The spinal discs contain fluid, which provides the cushioning effect but can be lost over time.
When the term “age” is used, in the case of DDD it’s referring to 20’s to 50’s. Beyond that, spinal discs lose most of their fluid and become hardened naturally anyway.
As fluid is lost, the disc can narrow or be damaged (such as a herniation or bulging of the disc) which can lead to spinal injury. Narrowed spinal discs remove a crucial level of support from vertebrae, allowing them to move against one another during spinal movement which can cause accelerated damage.This is because the resulting abnormal motion and stresses leads to arthritis of the facet joints that are located at each level of the spine.
Specific patients may be predisposed to the effects of DDD, as the risk of developing DDD is higher in patients with one or more family members who have developed DDD during their life.
Certain occupations that have patients seated for prolonged periods of time, or that have patients bending repeatedly, may increase the risk of developing DDD. Discs that have been damaged due to an injury are at increased risk of developing DDD.
And in line with a litany of other health problems, smoking has been linked with DDD as well. (Just add it to the list of smoking’s health issues).
What are the symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?
The primary symptoms of DDD will be directly related to which level of the spine the degeneration is occurring on, with unique symptoms for the cervical level, the thoracic, and the lumbar. The primary symptom shared between all three levels is pain localized to the area of the damaged disc, with severity of the pain varying on a patient-to-patient basis.
Discs that have been damaged on the cervical level may produce secondary symptoms of weakness or numbness in the arms and hands, with lumbar discs producing similar symptoms in the buttocks and legs.
How is Degenerative Disc Disease diagnosed?
The diagnosis of DDD is commonly achieved by a combination of the patient’s medical history, a careful physical examination of the area, and the use of imaging techniques to visually examine the disc. The exact symptoms a patient is exhibiting will be strong indicators as to whether or not DDD is present, with the location of pain revealing where the damaged disc most likely is.
For many patients, an X-ray will be used to examine for spinal damage and combined with an MRI to examine the soft tissue, including the disc itself. In situations where treatment for DDD is being considered, a discogram may be indicated. This procedure may help decide if a level that looks abnormal on MRI is actually painful.
It should be noted that degenerative disc disease is often seen on MRI’s of individuals who have no back pain whatsoever. This occurs in about 30% of individuals in their 30’s and 40% of those in their 40’s. So simply seeing evidence of DDD on an MRI does not necessarily correlate with pain.
What are the treatment options for Degenerative Disc Disease?
For patients with minor symptoms related to DDD, conservative treatments may work best. By limiting activities that can accelerate damage and by taking medication in the form of painkillers and anti-inflammatories, patients may be able to stem the progression of DDD.
Patients with moderate symptoms may able to obtain relief with physical therapy and chiropractic treatment, or with spinal decompression therapy. This may include ultrasound, electrical stimulation or TENS units. Acupuncture has been shown to help as well for DDD symptoms.
Injections for degenerative disc disease will vary according to the patient’s symptoms. This may include injections into the disc itself with cortisone. Or it may include facet injections or medial branch blocks if the individual has facet arthritis along with the DDD.
Also, epidural injections may help relieve symptoms. This may sound counter-intuitive. However, a degenerative, inflamed disc may irritate adjacent nerve roots and cause referred pain through the neck or lower back. So an epidural injection may be very effective at pain relief.
The treatment options available to patients with DDD are continuing to expand, with research being made into new treatments even today. Through the use of stem cells, patients may be able to regenerate the damaged portions of the disc to stop pain at its source.
The bottom line with degenerative disc disease is that over three fourths of patients are able to achieve a satisfactory level of reduced baseline pain with effective Chicago pain management and avoid surgery.
Spinal fusions for DDD do not have “slam dunk” results, so it is often best to exhaust these conservative treatment options first. Premier Pain & Spine offers Double Board Certified pain management doctors in Chicago at 7 locations.
Most insurance is accepted, and treatment options include both medical and interventional pain management. For the top pain management Chicago trusts, call (847) 519 4701 today!