Your backbone is fairly versatile and flexible, thanks in part to spongy discs that cushion spinal bones called vertebrae. However, as you age, your spinal discs experience gradual wear and tear. This process is known as degenerative disc disease (DDD). It’s not a “disease” in the traditional sense of the word, but disc degeneration can contribute to disruptive symptoms. Fortunately, there are many ways to treat affected spinal discs, from conservative treatments, such as physical therapy, to surgical procedures, such as ACDF surgery. Los Angeles patients should know the following facts about degenerative disc disease.
Disc wear contributes to cartilage breakdown and spinal joint wear. Over time, these changes may cause you to overcompensate with your movements. There’s a natural tendency to do this to avoid the pain associated with increased friction on the spinal bones because of discs that provide less cushioning, which could contribute to additional issues with spinal narrowing (spinal stenosis) and the development of abnormal growths called bone spurs (osteophytes).
All these possible effects of degenerative disc disease can lead to pressure on spinal nerves or the spinal cord itself. As far as symptoms go, DDD sometimes produces little or no discomfort. However, if nearby nerves are affected, you may notice symptoms such as:
• Pain and weakness within the affected area
• Numbness, tingling sensations, and similar discomfort that radiates to nearby areas (e.g., shoulders, arms, legs, thighs, buttocks, hips)
• Spinal pain and stiffness
• Muscle spasms
• Discomfort aggravated by certain movements (e.g., lifting something heavy, climbing stairs, bending, twisting, or sitting for long periods)
Because symptoms associated with degenerative disc disease can be associated with other sources of spine-related pain, diagnosis may involve asking you about your symptoms and reviewing your medical history. A physical examination for suspected disc wear issues may also include:
• Looking for signs of abnormalities in your movement related to muscular symptoms
• Applying gentle pressure to certain areas or asking you to make different movements to identify your pain triggers
• Testing your reflexes to evaluate how your nerves are functioning
An examination may also involve heating and cooling techniques to see how your affected spinal nerves react. If image tests confirm your symptoms are related to disc damage, a discogram may be done. A discogram is a test done with dye injections to find out which disc is likely causing your discomfort.
Unless your symptoms are severe or potentially life-threatening, you’ll likely be advised to explore non-surgical treatments first. Conservative DDD treatment often involves:
• A customized physical therapy plan
• Occupational therapy
• Lifestyle adjustments (e.g., weight loss, diet changes, regular exercise)
You may also benefit from the use of a back brace to maintain spinal stability or steroidal facet joint injections to provide relief in the affected area. Another option is radiofrequency ablation (RFA), which decreases nerve pain by heating up the nerve with an electrical current produced by radio waves. A similar technique is heated catheter insertion. If conservative treatments aren’t providing sufficient relief after 3–4 months, you may be a good candidate for surgical options such as:
• Decompression procedures to remove part or all of a damaged disc
• Spinal fusion to join together vertebrae to increase or restore spinal stability
• Decompression surgery that involves creating more space for spinal nerves
You can’t stop disc wear. However, you can be proactive about keeping your spine and its parts as healthy as possible by watching what you eat, staying active, lifting heavy things properly, drinking plenty of water, and checking in with your doctor or Los Angeles spine surgeon if you have persistent spine-related discomfort that’s not going away.
If you’re experiencing severe or persistent back pain, make sure to see an experienced back pain specialist for prompt diagnosis and treatment. The industry-leading physicians at The Spine Institute are pioneers in spinal health, employing cutting-edge technology and innovative methods to enable patients to live pain-free, active lives. To schedule a personal consultation with one of our spinal health experts, give us a call today at 310-828-7757.