As people age, the body changes. Range-of-motion and flexibility diminish. Osteoporosis becomes a real problem, and arthritis begins to set into various parts of the body. When arthritis settles in the spinal discs, it causes degenerative disc disease.
What is degenerative disc disease?
According to Arthritis Foundation, degenerative disc disease is pain caused by discs that are losing their integrity. The spine is comprised of vertebrae which are separated by discs. These discs, which are flexible sheaths filled with a thick viscous fluid, act as the shock absorbers for the vertebrae and lend flexibility to the spine. As the arthritis worsens, pain and discomfort may set in.
What are the symptoms of degenerative disc disease?
The Arthritis Foundation states that almost everyone over the age of 60 has some degenerative disc disease forming, yet not everybody experiences any discomfort associated with it. If, as the discs collapse, nerves are being pinched, John Hopkins Health states that individuals may experience a variety of symptoms:
- Neck pain – If the degenerative discs are located in the neck and nerves are being pinched there, individuals may suffer from sore neck muscles or localized neck pain which comes and goes.
- Shoulder blade pain – Problems with the neck may result in pain between the shoulder blades that progresses down the arms and to the fingers. This pain may last for either short or long periods of time, coming and going without any seeming rhyme or reason.
- Numbness of arms and fingers – As degenerative disc disease progresses, some may experience tingling and numbness in the upper extremities. If the numbness and tingling does not disappear after a time, enough nerve damage may be done that muscle weakness occurs in the affected areas.
- Muscle weakness – Whether the degenerating discs are in the neck or lower back, as the affected nerves worsen, the muscles may lose their strength. Arthritis Foundation adds those nerves that affect the legs may cause “foot drop” as well.
- Low-back pain – Pain and discomfort in the low back that lessens when walking or moving around and increases when sitting can be cause by either the lumbar spine or neck. The pain may radiate into the buttocks and thighs.
What causes degenerative disc disease?
Cedar-Sinai states that the cause of degenerative disc disease is really unknown. Age appears to be a factor. As people age, the viscous fluid inside the discs begins to dry out causing the discs to compress. Everyday life that puts wear and tear on the spinal discs and sports that constantly flex and compress areas of the spine are thought to add to increased risk. Injuries to the spine may also be part of the cause. Because the discs do not have as good of a blood supply as other parts of the body, once they are injured, they do not heal like everything else. These injuries may lead to degenerative disc disease later in life.
How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?
Those who are experiencing the above symptoms should see their doctor for a proper diagnosis. Doctors will sit down with their patient and use a combination of diagnostic tools to ascertain the cause of the problems.
- Physical exam – A complete physical exam will help the doctor decide whether degenerative disc disease is the root of the problem or if something else is going on.
- Medical history – As part of the exam, a complete medical history should be collected. The medical history helps the physician know if the pain is stemming from a previous injury.
- Symptoms – Doctors take into account the types of discomfort, the length of time the pain is present, the cause of the discomfort, and anything that helps alleviate the pain to help determine if degenerative disc disease is the underlying cause.
- Tests – Doctors may use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see if any discs show damage. An MRI alone cannot determine if degenerative disc disease is the cause of a patient’s pain, but combined with the other tools, it can be quite useful. Doctors may also use electromyography (EMG) or a nerve conduction study (NCS) to see if the nerves are communicating properly with the muscles.
How is degenerative disc disease treated?
Once a diagnosis has been obtained, John Hopkins Health states that doctors begin with the least invasive form of treatment possible, escalating only as needed.
- Heat and ice – When discomfort first hits, use either heat or ice on the offending area. The way to determine whether heat or ice is appropriate is whichever one gives you the most relief.
- Pain reliever – If heat and/or ice does not solve the issue, take a pain reliever like acetaminophen. If the acetaminophen doesn’t help, escalate to a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory like naproxen sodium or ibuprofen. The last step in pain management medications would be an oral steroid for a short period of time in an attempt to reduce inflammation.
- Physical therapy – Getting the body moving again and the blood circulating is one of the best ways to fight degenerative disc disease. As soon as the initial flare-up is over, seeing a physical therapist to start a workout routine that focuses on strengthening the supporting muscles for the spine is critical. For many people, this is all it takes to keep the pain and discomfort of degenerative disc disease under control. Staying active through sports activities that don’t exacerbate the issue improves sufferers’ mental and emotional state. At the same time the increased blood flow to the damaged areas carry away anti-inflammatory waste products and deliver important nutrients to the damaged area.
- Spinal Fusion – When none of the above solutions work and the pain is progressing quickly, spinal fusion might be recommended. During the procedure, the doctor will weld together two or more of the problematic vertebrae, turning these former pieces into a solid bone. Spinal fusion eliminates the mobility in that area which was causing pain and restores stability to the weakening spine.
- Disc replacement – Spinal fusion does not work for everyone, though. When fusing the bone together, the natural range-of-motion and flexibility is eliminated, causing the individual to walk or move unnaturally and in a way that creates more pain. Artificial disc replacement is a second option for severe degenerative disc disease. Doctors remove the worn disc and insert a synthetic disc. This procedure retains the body’s natural mobility and removes the source of the pain.
If you are suffering from back, neck, or arm pain that seems to come and go, schedule an appointment today with one our specialists at Atlanta Brain and Spine Care. Our staff will do a thorough physical, review your medical history, and order the necessary tests to get you a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Don’t just resign yourself to living with pain. Fight back with professional help.