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What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

By Christopher S. Blanchard, DO

One of the most common conditions I see in my practice is degenerative disc disease or DDD. Most of my patients think it is arthritis or just a sign they are getting old. In this article, I will address some of the common questions I receive from my patients.

What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease causes the weakening of one or more vertebral discs, which normally acts as a cushion or “shock absorber” between the vertebrae. Although it has the name “disease”, DDD is a natural condition that results from normal wear-and-tear on the body. As we age, our vertebral discs weaken and deteriorate, which can cause pain. While DDD is primarily related to aging, some people develop it as a result of back trauma.

What is a spinal disc?

The discs act as cushions or shock absorbers between the vertebrae or bones of the spine. Their main function is to help the back maintain flexibility and movement. The discs have 2 parts. Annulus fibrosus: this is the tough outer layer of the disc that contains nerves. If there is a tear in the annulus fibrosus, it can become painful. Nucleus pulposus: this is the soft, jelly- like middle of the disc. It contains proteins that can leak into the surrounding tissues and cause inflammation in the tissues. If this protein leaks into the annulus fibrosus, it can cause extreme pain.

What causes DDD?

This is probably one of the most common questions I get from my patients. There are several factors that play a role in causing DDD. They include:

  • Our discs dry out as we age. We are born with discs that are plump and provide shock absorption in our spine. As we age, the discs dry out and are unable to act as shock absorbers in the spine.
  • Injuries to our spine that cause swelling and instability can result in low back pain. Over time, this wear and tear can cause DDD.
  • Our daily activities and participation in sports can cause tears in the annulus fibrosus or outer section of the disc. As we age, most of us will develop some disc degeneration from our activities.

What are the symptoms of DDD?

  • Pain worse with sitting
  • Pain worse when you bend, lift or twist
  • Pain that gets better while walking than when you are sitting or standing for long periods of time.
  • Pain that gets better when you lie down or change positions. • Severe pain in the low back, buttocks and thighs
  • Muscle spasms in your low back
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • Weakness in your legs and feet

How is DDD diagnosed, and what is the treatment?

Your provider will review your medical history, perform a physical examination and review X-rays and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). The MRI can view your discs and can show any damage which can then be treated with a variety of interventions, including:

  • Medications such as Advil, Aleve or Tylenol
  • Spine Therapy to help with flexibility and core strength
  • Activities such as yoga, pilates, swimming or using a recumbent exercise bike
  • Nonsurgical interventional injections such as an epidural steroid injection
  • Surgical treatment such as artificial disc replacement or minimally invasive spinal fusion

While most of us will develop degenerative disc disease as we age, there are many ways to treat it so we can continue to be active. If you are experiencing back pain, see one of the expert physicians at Resurgens Spine Center to help you get back to doing what you love.

Christopher S. Blanchard, D.O., received his medical degree from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwannee, Georgia. He completed his residency in orthopaedic surgery at Doctors Hospital in Columbus, Ohio and his fellowship in spine surgery at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Dr. Blanchard practices at Resurgens Orthopaedics’ Cumming and Roswell offices.

Resurgens Spine Center • Non-surgical & Surgical Spine Care

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