Spine-Related Musculoskeletal Conditions – Part 6 – Degenerative Disc Disease

In this series, we have been examining spine-related musculoskeletal conditions.  In this post, we will be looking at degenerative disc disease.

Degenerative Disc Disease

Definition: Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is the breakdown in the size and cushioning of the intervertebral discs.

Overview: The name of the condition is actually somewhat of a misnomer – it is not actually a “disease”, but rather a condition that is characterized by the degeneration of the intervertebral discs over time.  Over time, the pressure and wear of repetitive use can cause discs to lose some of their water content and volume, reducing their ability to cushion and insulate the vertebrae from one another.

Symptoms: The symptoms most commonly associated with DDD are chronic pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling in the extremities, and reduced flexibility in the spine. Not all people with intervertebral disc degeneration, however, experience pain or other symptoms.  This is due to the fact that the degeneration of the discs, by itself, does not bring on the symptoms described above. However, as disc degeneration becomes more severe, it can lead to other conditions that bring on the symptoms people normally associate with DDD (e.g., pain, numbness and tingling, weakness, etc.).  Some of the conditions commonly associated with DDD are spinal osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and foraminal stenosis.

Causes: Reduction in the size and cushioning of your discs is part of the normal process of aging, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have shown that almost everyone over the age of 60 has degeneration of their intervertebral discs to some degree.[1]  Not all people with disc degeneration have back pain or other symptoms – in fact, individuals with relatively mild disc degeneration may experience no symptoms whatsoever.

However, age is not the only factor in DDD.  Deterioration of the intervertebral discs can be accelerated and exacerbated by other factors.  The culprit in many severe cases of DDD is stress-related damage in the form of repetitive use, trauma, injury, poor posture, poor movement, and obesity.  Among these, one of the most common factors is repetitive use.  For example, the repetitive, static posture of a dentist during clinical procedures creates (1) compressive forces on the cervical discs due to neck flexion, and (2) compressive forces on the lumbar discs due to axial loading.  When these compressive forces are applied year after year on a daily basis, the result can be an accelerated deterioration of the intervertebral discs.

Diagnosis: Diagnosis will generally begin with a physical exam in which the physician will perform a variety of tests to evaluate the patient’s strength and range of motion.  If the physical tests indicate DDD, an MRI is typically ordered to measure the disc space and check for cartilage erosion.

Treatment: Because DDD can cause such a broad range of symptoms and subsequent conditions, the treatment options vary widely.  Depending on the circumstances, treatment can range from conservative options such as physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications to surgical intervention in the form of a discectomy, laminectomy, laminoplasty, or spinal fusion.

Our next and final post in this series will discuss myelopathy.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional.  If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose.  Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

[1] Degenerative Disc Disease, Arthritis Foundation, http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/degenerative-disc-disease/

References:

1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
http://columbianeurology.org/about-us/neurological-institute-new-york.
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.