Understanding Degenerative Disc Disease

Our spines are made up of a series of vertebrae that are connected by soft discs made of tissue. They act as "shock absorbers" and allow the back to stay flexible as we move. They also allow our bodies to resist great forces such as those that occur during athletic pursuits and even car accidents.

As we get older, we naturally experience a certain amount of wear and tear of the spinal discs as a result of activity and also the "drying out" of the moist tissue of the discs. In fact, estimates are that by age 60, a great majority of us have some disc degeneration. But some unlucky folks sustain an injury to a disc and experience this condition at younger ages. And because the discs have such a low blood supply, it's impossible for them to repair themselves. Thus, a disc injury can set in motion a chain of events known as degenerative disc disease.

How do you know if you have degenerative disc disease? If you have low back pain, are in your thirties or forties, and are otherwise healthy, you're a typical sufferer. Symptoms include the following:

  • Pain that worsens when you sit. Sitting causes the discs to bear three times the load that they do when you stand.
  • Bending, lifting, or twisting causes you even more discomfort.
  • Changing positions or lying down gives you relief.
  • You have severe pain that comes and goes.
  • You experience numbness and tingling in the arms, legs, hands, and feet, or leg weakness.

If a doctor suspects degenerative disc disease she may order an MRI, but that alone does not confirm it. Your medical history and a physical exam will help a doctor make the diagnosis. Depending on its severity, degenerative disc disease may require surgery. One option is artificial disc replacement, in which your damaged disc is implanted into your spine to provide the necessary support. Non-surgical treatment options include wearing a back brace, getting chiropractic treatments, physical therapy, electrotherapy, or injections into the damaged disc.