Degenerative Disc Disease: Causes and Treatments

degenerative disc disease

Image: Michael Dorausch/ Flickr

Back problems are a depressingly common part of getting older. Studies have estimated that around 80% of people in the US will suffer from lower back pain at some point in their lives. And while there are many different conditions that can cause chronic back pain, degenerative disc disease may be one of the worst.

But what exactly is degenerative disc disease? What causes it? And what can you do to treat it?

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Your spine is made up of bones called vertebrae. In between these bones are discs of soft tissue that cushion the vertebrae from rubbing up against each other. Over time, these discs can wear down, and the bones of the vertebrae start to grind against each other.

As the vertebrae start to grind against each other, they form bone spurs, or growths in the bone. These spurs can pinch or irritate the nerves in the spine. This leads to nerve pain or a tingling sensation in the affected area. If the affected disc is between one of the lower vertebrae, it can lead to pain in the lower back or even the legs. If the disc is closer to the neck, you might feel that pain in the arms or the neck.

Because the discs in the spine help you twist and bend, these actions can make the pain worse. And some people with the condition may actually feel no pain at all. Degenerative disc disease is complicated, and many people will have different symptoms.

And there are many things that can cause someone to develop it.

What Causes It?

The most common cause for the condition is simply the process of aging. Gravity puts pressure on the discs, and the discs don’t have a supply of blood, which means that they can’t repair themselves over time. So a lifetime of pressure can gradually wear away the discs in your spine.

That’s why the condition is most common in older people. At least 30% of people aged between 30-50 years experience degeneration in their discs.

Genetics also plays a role. People with a family history of the disease are also more likely to develop the condition. And lifestyle factors like smoking and obesity can also increase your risk.

Many people also develop the condition following an injury like a car accident or a fall. Any injury that damages the discs in the spine can lead to degenerative disc disease.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to treat it.

What Can You Do To Treat It?

The first step in any treatment is a diagnosis. And there are a few ways that doctors can identify a damaged disc. The doctor will start with a physical exam looking for evidence of pain in the back or limbs. Then they may ask you to do some basic movements like twisting or bending over. If the pain spikes with these movements, then it’s a good indication of disc problems. Once the doctor suspects a degenerated disc, they can easily diagnose it with an X-ray.

In most cases, treatment focuses on managing the pain. Puting an ice or heating pack on the affected area can be an effective way to relieve the pain, as can basic over-the-counter painkillers like aspirin and ibuprofen. Of course, for severe pain, these methods may not be enough. So, many people with back pain from a degenerated disc end up on opioid pain relievers.

These are often the most effective medications for relieving pain, but they can be dangerous if not used correctly. If you find yourself being prescribed opioids, always use them exactly as recommended. Otherwise, there is the risk of a fatal overdose.

And if you’d prefer not to use these medications,  you can also try physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in the back. This helps reduce micro-movements in the spine that can make the condition worse and cause pain as the bones slide over the damaged disc.

Other than managing the pain, the only real treatment option for a degenerated disc is surgery. This surgery usually involves removing the damaged disc. Sometimes, doctors will insert an artificial disc to help cushion the vertebrae and replace the disc they removed. Or they surgically fuse the bones together, protecting the spinal cord from further damage.

In most cases, doctors suggest that patients try to manage their pain without the surgery. And typically, only cases that are extremely severe or threaten to lead to serious complications are treated with surgical methods.

So, if you’re struggling with lower back pain, let us know. When did you get diagnosed? What did you do to treat it? How do you manage long-term pain? Tell us in the comments.


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