If you’ve got back problems involving your discs, here’s what you need to know about degenerative disc disease:

It’s Not Really a “Disease”

Despite its name, degenerative disc disease is not really a disease at all. It’s more of a “condition” caused by damage to one or more of the spinal discs.

So What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

As you age, the discs in your back lose water, and begin to lose their height. (When you’re born, your discs are about 80% water.) ¬†Wear and tear, poor posture and incorrect movements can also cause this.

These discs are like shock absorbers between the bones in your spine. This loss of water brings them closer together, and the nerve openings in your spine become narrower as a result. The discs don’t absorb shocks as well as they used to, especially when you walk, run or jump.

Unlike other tissues in the body, there is very little blood supply in the discs. Once damage occurs, it lacks the ability to repair itself, and degeneration sets in.

What are the Symptoms?

  • Back and/or leg pain that is often worse when sitting
  • Pain that worsens when bending, twisting or lifting things
  • Tingling or numbness in the back, buttock area or in the extremities
  • Difficulty standing still for long periods of time
  • Pain that eases a bit when changing positions or lying down
  • Periods of severe pain that can last anywhere from a few days to months
  • Depending on where the disc is located in the spine, pain affecting the lower back, buttocks and thighs, or pain affecting the neck and radiating down the arms
  • Possible weakness in the legs

How is it Diagnosed?

Your doctor will physically examine your back and lower extremities. They will be checking for things like flexibility, range of motion and certain signs that indicate nerves in your back are being affected. This usually includes testing your muscle strength and your reflexes. They may also order x-rays or an MRI scan.

Treatment Options

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for degenerative disc disease. Treatment options will depend on the severity of your symptoms and how much they disrupt or limit your daily activities. Possible treatments include:

  • Non-surgical options such as medications, physical therapy or chiropractic care can help ease mild to moderate pain.
  • A surgery procedure known as spinal fusion joins or “fuses” two or more vertebrae into one solid bone with no space in between. (Vertebrae are the small, interlocking bones of the spine.) Spinal fusion is also known as arthrodesis, or vertebral inter-body fusion. In the case of degenerative disc disease, the damaged discs are removed and bone grafts are placed into the empty disc space. This is known as diskectomy.
  • Surgery known as cervical disc replacement can be performed to replace the damaged disc with an artificial disc device, sometimes called a disc prosthesis. They’re usually made of metal or a plastic-like material called biopolymer. Cervical disc replacement is an alternative to spinal fusion that is designed to allow more normal motion to the spine, and may be a better alternative for younger patients. Another potential benefit of cervical disc replacement surgery is a quicker recovery time allowing you to return to your normal activities sooner than you could with a spinal fusion procedure.

At HROSM, we always begin with the least invasive treatments before surgical options are recommended.

Pain is a subjective thing, and even though most people aged 60 and over have some degree of degenerative disc disease, not all of them experience debilitating pain from it. If you’re a Virginia resident experiencing chronic or new back pain, contact us at Hampton Roads Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. Our team of top-rated orthopedic doctors includes a team of three spine specialists who have the skills and experience to help you get back in motion.