Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

July 14, 2020
As you age, your vertebral discs deteriorate. This can lead to degenerative disc disease in some people.

Degenerative disc disease is not really a disease, but a term used to describe the normal changes that take place in the vertebral discs as we age. The vertebral discs act as shock absorbers for the spine, allowing it to bend and rotate.

When degenerative disc disease occurs, the passage openings in the spinal nerves narrow and don’t cushion impact, especially when running or jumping. Additionally, most of the time it occurs in the lumbar and cervical discs.

What causes degenerative disc disease?

Woman sitting at desk, holding back in pain due to degenerative disc disease.
When faced with wear on your discs, certain postures or activities can cause intense back pain.

As you age, your vertebral discs deteriorate, which can lead to degenerative disc disease in some people. Some of the changes due to age are:

  • Loss of fluid in the discs: this causes the discs to lose their ability to act as shock absorbers. Likewise, it also decreases the thickness of the disc and the distance between the vertebrae.
  • Cracks in the outer layer of the disc: leading to the gelatinous material of the disc to come out and cause the disc to rupture.

Smokers, obese people, and those who do heavy physical labor are more likely to suffer these changes. Likewise, wear and tear, incorrect posture, and incorrect body movements can also weaken the discs and cause degeneration.

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease

This disease can cause neck or back pain, depending on the location of the damaged discs. However, if the affected disc is in the neck, it can cause neck or arm pain. Meanwhile, if the affected disc is in the back, you may experience pain in your back, buttocks, or legs.

Movements such as bending, stretching, or turning often make the pain worse. The pain can also appear after an injury, even after performing a normal movement such as bending to lift an object. In other cases, you may feel tingling and numbness in one leg or arm.

Disc degeneration is actually a natural part of aging, and over time, everyone will experience changes to their discs depending on the degree of wear and tear.

However, not all people will develop symptoms. In fact, degenerative disc disease can vary a lot in nature and severity.

Read also: 8 Tips to Keep Your Spine Healthy and Strong

Diagnosis of degenerative disc disease

Doctor physically examining a woman's spine.
After a physical examination, your doctor will be able to determine the seriousness and location of the degenerative injury.

Doctors diagnose this disease through a physical examination and questions about symptoms, injuries, diseases, habits, and activities that you do. In the physical examination, the physician assesses the range of motion of the affected area and whether you feel pain when you move.

The specialist will also look for areas of tenderness and other changes related to the nerves such as tingling, numbness, or weakness in the affected area. Additionally, they’ll check for other conditions such as fractures, tumors, and infections.

Your doctor will use imaging when there’s:

  • Suspected nerve damage
  • Symptoms after an injury
  • Other conditions that can affect the spine

You might also be interested in: Three Scientifically Proven Low Back Pain Exercises

How do you treat it?

To relieve pain, you can apply cold or heat depending on what feels better in the affected area. In addition, your doctor will prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or naproxen. If necessary, your doctor can recommend more powerful medications.

You can complement pharmacological treatment with physical therapy and exercises to strengthen and stretch your back. In some cases, surgery may be necessary. Surgery usually involves removing the damaged disc. However, in some cases, they permanently attach the bone to protect the spinal cord.

If the issue is a herniated disc, osteoarthritis, or spinal stenosis, it will most likely require other treatments.

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  • Wybier, M. (2015). Diagnóstico por imagen de la patología lumbar degenerativa. EMC – Aparato Locomotor. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1286-935x(15)71133-0

  • Comuñas, F. (2000). Dolor radicular. Revista Sociedad Española Del Dolor Supl. II.