Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences
What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Does your back ever hurt? You're not alone! Up to 80% of people will suffer from some type of back pain in their lifetime. There are different issues that cause this, some perfectly temporary, but some are irreversible and can worse over time. Degenerative disc disease is one such case.
The name is a little misleading, because degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease at all; rather, it's a natural process affecting the spinal discs that occurs with aging. It's also the leading diagnosis for people experiencing back pain.
Spinal discs are the soft, compressible tissue found between each vertebra in the spine. These discs are what allow you do bend, twist, and move comfortably; without them, you would have major limitations on spinal movement. If it helps, you can also think of them as shock absorbers, similar to what you have on your car to prevent you from feeling every bump on the road.
Problems arise when we injure a disc or when the disc naturally starts to erode away due to age, and that's what degenerative disc disease is: the natural aging process where the spinal discs wear down and stop functioning properly. This can lead to pain and reduced mobility of the spine. Injuries can spur the onset of natural degeneration, but how does natural degeneration actually occur?
The Process of Natural Degeneration
Well, there are two main things that happen that cause degenerative disc disease.
- Losing fluid in the discs. The natural hydration acts like lubrication, allowing the discs to move properly. As the discs lose hydration (a natural part of aging), they become less flexible and thinner, reducing their effectiveness at keeping the vertebrae apart.
- Small cracks appear on the edges of the discs. This allows the fluid inside the discs to leak out and can eventually lead to discs becoming misshapen, sliding out of place, or even bursting.
To go back to our car example, this spinal disc hydration can be compared to having a properly oiled engine. Hydrated spinal discs allow the pieces of the spine to move and function properly, just like oil acts as a lubrication to allow the parts of the car to function without causing damage. Once that lubrication disappears, the metal grinds together, eventually causing the various parts to seize. Movement stops and damage occurs.
The same thing happens in the spine. Once those spinal discs dry out or burst, the parts of the spine begin rubbing together, causing pain and additional damage.
This natural degeneration process can occur anywhere in the spine, though it usually affects the area around the neck and the area around the lower back. Additionally, once degeneration occurs, it is irreversible.
Results of Natural Degeneration
Now we know that disc degeneration weakens the stability and functioning of the spinal cord, but what does this really mean for the patient?
Not everyone who experiences this natural degeneration process will have any symptoms; however, when symptoms do appear, it becomes classified as mild degenerative disc disease. The most common symptom of mild degenerative disc disease is pain and discomfort in the area around the affected spinal discs.
Movement often stimulates pain, especially with activities like twisting or bending over. These mild cases can be treated with ice or heat on the problem area, and many symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications (though the patient and their doctor should discuss what is appropriate for each case).
More severe cases can lead to a loss of cartilage between bones (called osteoarthritis), a ruptured spinal disc (called a herniated disc), or a complete narrowing of the spinal cord (called spinal stenosis). However, these more severe symptoms occur as part of moderate to severe degenerative disc disease.
Mild Degenerative Disc Disease Risk Factors
Many cases occur as a natural (if unfortunate) part of aging. However, there are certain risk factors that may increase the likelihood of someone developing mild degenerative disc disease. A sudden injury can damage a spinal disc, prompting the onset of degenerative disc disease. Long-term factors such as repetitive movements, smoking, and obesity can also lead to degenerative disc disease.
Spinal discs are found between vertebrae in the spinal cord and they enable us to move easily. Unfortunately, these discs begin to wear away with age, and this is where we can encounter problems, particularly in our neck and lower back.
Almost everyone experiences some type of natural degeneration of the spinal discs (mainly due to a loss of fluid in the discs), but not everyone will experience symptoms. Once this degeneration causes pain, it becomes known as mild degenerative disc disease, and this damage is irreversible. Mild cases can usually be treated with heat or cold therapy or over-the-counter medication. More serious cases can lead to osteoarthritis, where cartilage is worn away and causes the painful situation of bones rubbing together.
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