What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

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Lateral view of a herniated lumbar disc compressing a spinal ner

Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) isn’t really a disease at all.  It describes the normal changes in the discs in your spine as you age.  But in common usage, DDD is used to describe the pain and radiating weakness and numbness caused by dried out or herniated or bulging discs in the spine.

The discs in your spine sit between the vertebrae and provide cushioning and act as shock absorbers.  As they age, they lose their flexibility as they dry out and lose their height.  This brings the vertebrae closer together, and as a result the nerve openings become narrower, possibly causing pain.

Disc degeneration is a natural part of aging, but not all people will experience painful symptoms.

Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

degenerative disc disease nerve compressionMost patients with lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease will experience constant lower back pain, that will flare up and intensify at times.  The pain is chronic (lasting longer than six weeks) and is felt as an ache in the centre of the lower back.  It may radiate to the hips and legs, and be exacerbated by bending, twisting or lifting.  The pain can be mild, or very severe, causing numbness and tingling in the legs and feet, and difficultly walking.

As the disc thins and collapses, the spine becomes less stable.  The body tries to compensate for this by creating bone spurs (osteophytes), and those can impinge the exiting nerve root at that level.  This is called Foriminal Stenosis.

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

Cervical DDD causes neck pain and stiffness.  Cervical disease is much less common than lumbar degenerative disc disease, because the lower spine is subjected to more force and twisting motion and carries the weight of all the spinal structures above.

In addition to pain, Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease can cause numbness, tingling and weakness in the arms and shoulders, if the nerves become pinched or irritated.  Cervical disc degeneration can also cause spinal stenosis (narrowing) in the same way that Lumbar Disc degeneration can.

How is Degenerative Disc Disease Treated

Degenerative Disc Disease is treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications to reduce the inflammation causing pain.

Appropriate exercise can help to retain strength and flexibility.

 

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