Degenerative disc disease

Degenerative Disc Disease Explained

We normally associate spinal damage with traumatic injuries such as car and sporting accidents. There are, however, a wide range of spinal problems that can occur for a whole variety of reasons.

Spinal stenosis, for example, usually occurs because of wear and tear – often due to old age. It happens when the area around the spinal canal is reduced, compressing the nerves and causing a variety of problems. It can also be a condition that is acquired at birth in some individuals.

Degenerative disc disease is one condition that occurs in later life and is not caused by trauma. As we get older, our body undergoes a significant amount of wear and tear and it can cause issues such as pain and reduced mobility.

Here we take a closer look at degenerative disc disease, what causes it and how it can be treated.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Spinal discs essentially act as shock absorbers for the vertebrae – without them, our bones would be continuously grinding against each other and wearing down much quicker.

As with many things in the human body, spinal discs are subject to the usual wear and tear that comes with age. As we get older, they become less effective. That’s why we’re less able to bend and twist like we used to when we were younger.

Whilst it’s often called a disease, this is actually a natural consequence of ageing and happens to many people in the later stages of their life. It can become a problem when it begins to cause pain or discomfort.

What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?

A bit like a sneaker, vertebral discs consist of a harder outer layer with a softer inner region. These combine to provide support but also cushion impact and protect separate vertebrae from the stresses and strains of everyday living.

Over time a number of different things happen:

  • Spinal discs begin to dry out and become less flexible. That means they are less able to absorb shock.
  • The discs can also crack and be damaged by everyday movements and more traumatic events, such as accidents and sporting injuries.
  • If the disc breaks down, the soft inner core can end up bulging out from the vertebrae causing a lot of pain.

Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

Old man suffering from degenerative disc disease

The breakdown of vertebral discs takes a lot of time and symptoms don’t necessarily come on quickly. In other circumstances, a sudden wrong movement, twist or turn may suddenly cause deep pain and discomfort.

  • It can give rise to a range of different symptoms including pain in the lower back, thighs and buttocks. Often that pain will not be constant.
  • It will ebb and flow and be more difficult at certain times, such as when trying to sleep at night. It can be improved by lying down or changing sleeping position.
  • It’s often improved by moving around or walking, rather than sitting down.
  • A person might find sudden twinges of pain when they bend or twist suddenly.
  • In rarer circumstances, the disc degeneration leads to a feeling of numbness or tingling in other parts of the body such as the legs. The individual may even feel weakness in their legs or arms.

Degenerative disc disease usually only becomes a problem when these symptoms become unmanageable. Many people live with mild or at least controllable problems of this type every day.

Treating Degenerative Disc Disease

The first things to consider when degenerative disc disease is diagnosed are more conservative therapies such as exercise and medication. Exercise can be focused on trying to stabilize and strengthen the area around the spinal damage and it can help reduce pain and improve mobility.

Medication will often include anti-inflammatory pain killers, used in the short term during more painful episodes.

The individual will probably find the pain from degenerative disc disease comes and goes and that there are ways of reducing the potential for attacks to occur. This might include regular exercise and avoiding certain situations or activities.

As with most spinal conditions, surgery is usually seen as a last resort, not least because of how delicate this area of the body is.

This may be considered once the individual has not responded to any conventional therapies. That includes situations where there is continual numbness or pain, the individual has difficulty walking or they are not able to carry out their regular day-to-day activities

Surgery for degenerative disc disease involves either fusing two vertebrae together, to create a more stable structure, or by removing part of the vertebral joint to provide more space for the disc and the nerves to come through.

Another clinical approach, but one which is still in its infancy, is the use of regenerative medicine to help create new disc material that can help damaged areas regenerate.

However, a lot more research into this treatment option needs to be undertaken before it is considered as an approved method to combat degenerative disc disease.