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. 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.
 Degenerative Disc Disease, Arthritis Foundation, http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/degenerative-disc-disease/
1. Spine-health, https://www.spine-health.com/.
2. Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/.
3. The Neurological Institute of New York,
4. John Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/.
5. WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/.
In Part 1 of this post, we listed some of the symptoms and potential causes of myelopathy. In Part 2, we will discuss some of the methods used to treat myelopathy.
Methods of Treating Myelopathy
- Avoidance of activities that cause pain;
- Using a brace to immobilize the neck;
- Physical therapy (primarily exercises to improve neck strength and flexibility);
- Various medication (including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), oral corticosteroids, muscle relaxants, anti-seizure medications, antidepressants, and prescription pain relievers);
- Epidural steroid injections (ESI);
- Narcotics, if pain is very severe;
- Surgical removal of bone spurs/herniated discs putting pressure on spinal cord;
- Surgical removal of portions of vertebrae in spine (to give the spinal cord more room); and
- Spinal fusion surgery.
Myelopathy can be severely debilitating, particularly for doctors and dentists. Obviously, any physician or dentist who is experiencing a loss of motor skills, numbness in hands and arms and/or high levels of chronic pain will not be able to effectively treat patients.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to ask your doctor to conduct tests to see if your spinal cord is being compressed. If you have myelopathy and the pain and numbness has progressed to the point where you can no longer treat patients effectively or safely, you should stop treating patients and consider filing a disability claim.
In previous posts, we have discussed a number of disabling conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremors, carpal tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. In this post, we are going to talk about another serious condition that can severely limit a physician or dentist’s ability to practice—myelopathy. In Part 1, we will discuss some of the causes and symptoms of myelopathy. In Part 2, we will discuss some of the methods used to treat myelopathy.
What is Myelopathy?
Myelopathy is an overarching term used to describe any neurologic deficit caused by compression of the spinal cord.
The onset of myelopathy can be rapid or it can develop slowly over a period of months. In most cases, myelopathy is progressive; however, the timing and progression of symptoms varies significantly from person to person.
What Causes Myelopathy?
There are several potential causes of myelopathy, including:
- Bone fractures or dislocations due to trauma/injury;
- Inflammatory diseases/autoimmune disorders (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis);
- Structural abnormalities (e.g. bone spurs, disc bulges, herniated discs, thickened ligaments);
- Vascular problems;
- Infections; and
- Degenerative changes due to aging.
Symptoms of Myelopathy
The symptoms of myelopathy will vary from case to case, because the nature and severity of the symptoms will depend on which level of the spine is being compressed—i.e. cervical (neck), thoracic (middle), or lumbar (lower)—and the extent of the compression.
Some of the symptoms of myelopathy include:
- Neck stiffness;
- Deep aching pain in one or both sides of neck, and possibly arms and shoulders;
- Grating or crackling sensation when moving neck;
- Stabbing pain in arm, elbow, wrist or arms;
- Dull ache/tingling/numbness/weakness in arms, hands, legs or feet;
- Position sense loss (i.e. the inability to know where your arms are without looking at them);
- Deterioration of fine motor skills (such as handwriting and the ability to button shirts);
- Lack of coordination, imbalance, heavy feeling in the legs, and difficulty walking;
- Clumsiness of hands and trouble grasping;
- Intermittent shooting pains in arms and legs (especially when bending head forward);
- Incontinence; and
- Paralysis (in extreme cases).