Degenerative disc disease and the soreness in the back that it causes are a significant socioeconomic burden on the health care system. Studies have shown that back pain racks up costs greater than $100 billion annually in the U.S., including lost wages and reduced productivity. More than 75 percent of those costs are generated by fewer than five percent of patients.
As they age, almost everyone will experience some wear on their spinal discs. But not everyone will have the symptoms of what is known as degenerative disc disease. The pain caused by degenerative disc disease arises when a disc loses its integrity.
Most people older than 60 years of age have some disc degeneration, but they do not all experience discomfort. When a disc fails, the vertebral facet joints grind against each other, and cause pain. If there is no other cause found for the pain, the patient is diagnosed with degenerative disc disease.
The vertebral discs in the spine act as shock absorbers for the bones. The discs enable the spine to remain elastic, flexible, and strong.
A disc is composed of:
- The anulus fibrosus, which is a strong outer wrapping, on the outside of which are nerves. If this area is damaged, the pain can become extensive.
- The nucleus pulposus, the soft inner core of the spinal disc. It holds proteins that can cause swelling, tenderness, and an extensive amount of pain, if they leak into the outer layers of the disc.
Causes of degenerative disc disease
Loss of fluid due to aging can cause the intervertebral discs to compress. . When this occurs, the discs do not handle shocks to the system well. Daily activities cantear the disc components, resulting in swollen and sore tissues. A disc receives little blood flow. Unable to repair itself, it begins to deteriorate.
Symptoms of degenerative disc disease
There are a variety of symptoms of degenerative disc disease:
- Pain exacerbated by movement or standing
- Muscle spasms
- Sciatic nerve pain
- Leg muscle weakness
- Numbness of the leg or foot
- Reduced reflexes in the ankle or knee
- Problems with bowel or bladder function
Diagnosing and treating degenerative disc disease
Diagnostic imaging, such as an MRI scan, can reveal damage to discs, but alone it cannot confirm degenerative disc disease. To make a diagnosis, a physician will review a patient’s history and carry out a physicalexam. The patient’s symptoms will be reviewed, a diagnosis made, and treatment plan determined.
Controlling back pain, and degenerative disc disease, requires exercise that will improve the flexibility and strength of the muscles of the spine.. Exercise boosts the amount of blood circulation, . bringingnutrients to the area while reducing inflammation.
In addition to physical activity, additional treatment may be necessary.
- Physical therapy
- Pain relievers
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- Disc replacement or spinal fusion surgery
- Applying heat or cold to the affected area. .
- Mobilization of the spinal joint
Degenerative disc disease can also be managed by nutrition, weight loss, and healthy lifestyle.
Reviewed by Catherine Shaffer, M.Sc.