Causes and treatment of degenerative disk disease

Back pain can interfere with normal activities. One of the most common causes is degenerative disk disease. Fortunately, there is help.

For most people, the pain improves within one to four weeks and can be managed with conservative treatments.

The June issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource describes causes and treatment for this condition.

Small disks act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae in the spine. With age, the disks are more prone to trauma and tearing that results from twisting and turning, a fall or a blow to the back. When a tear occurs in the outer portion of the disk, adjacent nerve endings are irritated and sensitive to pain. The pain is usually intermittent and worsens with longer periods of sitting, or with bending, twisting or lifting. Degenerative disk disease is most common among people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

To diagnose the condition, a doctor will perform a physical exam and verify which movements cause pain. Imaging tests may be used to assess spinal changes.

Treatment usually consists of self-care measures such as applying cold or heat, pain medication, physical therapy and lifestyle changes. Losing weight may be advised to reduce stress on the back. Stopping smoking could be recommended to improve blood circulation and aid in healing. Other back-friendly measures include proper lifting, good posture, ergonomic furniture and supportive footwear.

Surgery is performed when other treatments haven't eased the pain. Options are spinal fusion to permanently fuse two or more vertebrae, or disk replacement where the damaged disk is replaced with a prosthetic one.

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