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What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

An illustration of a healthy spine and one with spinal osteoarthritis, a degenerative disc disease.
Changes naturally occur in people's spinal discs as they grow older.
Article Details
  • Written By: K T Solis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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Degenerative disc disease is the normal changes in spinal discs as people grow older. Spinal discs are discs that separate the vertebrae that comprise a person's spine. These discs absorb shock for the spine and assist the spine in its need to bend and twist. Degenerative disc disease occurs throughout the spine but more frequently takes place in the discs of the cervical and lumbar region.

Changes in the spinal discs can be the result of pain in the neck and back. They can also be caused by several medical conditions, namely, herniated disc, spinal stenosis, and osteoarthritis. A herniated disc is a bulge in the spinal disc, spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal -- the space that holds the spinal cord -- narrows, and osteoarthritis is the deterioration of cartilage that protects the joints. Such conditions put pressure on the nerves and spinal cord. In turn, the patient experiences pain and may have decreased nerve function.

Degenerative disc disease is caused by the deterioration of spinal discs. This breaking down of discs is related to the aging process. As people age, they may lose fluid within the discs, causing the discs to become less flexible and unable to serve as shock absorbers.

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These discs become thinner and the distance between vertebrae decreases. Other age-related problems include diminutive cracks or tears within the disc's outer layer. Each spinal disc has a jelly-like substance called the nucleus. When the discs have tears and cracks, the nucleus leaks out. As a result, the discs bulge, rupture, or break into small pieces.

Changes in the spinal discs most often occur in smokers, people who regularly engage in heavy physical labor, or those who are severely overweight. People who experience a serious injury that leads to a herniated disc are also candidates for changes in spinal discs. When such changes occur in the discs, a person is inflicted with degenerative disc disease.

The space between the vertebrae continues to narrow, and there is less cushion between the bones. In order to combat these changes, the body develops bony growths which are called bone spurs. The bone spurs put pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerve roots, and the patient begins to experience pain.

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease can vary among patients. Some people report back or neck pain, while others experience no pain at all. Still other may experience such chronic pain that they are unable to carry on with normal activities. Pain usually increases as a person twists, bends, or reaches. In some cases, patients may experience a numb or tingling sensation in the leg or arm.

Once a person is diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, various forms of treatment are employed. In order to alleviate pain, ice or heat can be placed on the affected area. Acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be used in conjunction with ice and heat therapy. Doctors may prescribe physical therapy and stretching to the patient as well. In extreme cases, surgery may be recommended. This often involves removing the damaged disc.

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