Degenerative Disk Disease

Degenerative disk disease is a condition caused by the changes that occur in the cushions of the backbone (spinal disks) as you grow older. Spinal disks are soft and compressible disks located between the bones of the spine (vertebrae). They act like shock absorbers. Degenerative disk disease can affect the whole spine. However, the neck and lower back are most commonly affected. Many changes can occur in the spinal disks with aging, such as:

  • The spinal disks may dry and shrink.

  • Small tears may occur in the tough, outer covering of the disk (annulus).

  • The disk space may become smaller due to loss of water.

  • Abnormal growths in the bone (spurs) may occur. This can put pressure on the nerve roots exiting the spinal canal, causing pain.

  • The spinal canal may become narrowed.

CAUSES

Degenerative disk disease is a condition caused by the changes that occur in the spinal disks with aging. The exact cause is not known, but there is a genetic basis for many patients. Degenerative changes can occur due to loss of fluid in the disk. This makes the disk thinner and reduces the space between the backbones. Small cracks can develop in the outer layer of the disk. This can lead to the breakdown of the disk. You are more likely to get degenerative disk disease if you are overweight. Smoking cigarettes and doing heavy work such as weightlifting can also increase your risk of this condition. Degenerative changes can start after a sudden injury. Growth of bone spurs can compress the nerve roots and cause pain.

SYMPTOMS

The symptoms vary from person to person. Some people may have no pain, while others have severe pain. The pain may be so severe that it can limit your activities. The location of the pain depends on the part of your backbone that is affected. You will have neck or arm pain if a disk in the neck area is affected. You will have pain in your back, buttocks, or legs if a disk in the lower back is affected. The pain becomes worse while bending, reaching up, or with twisting movements. The pain may start gradually and then get worse as time passes. It may also start after a major or minor injury. You may feel numbness or tingling in the arms or legs.

DIAGNOSIS

Your caregiver will ask you about your symptoms and about activities or habits that may cause the pain. He or she may also ask about any injuries, diseases, or treatments you have had earlier. Your caregiver will examine you to check for the range of movement that is possible in the affected area, to check for strength in your extremities, and to check for sensation in the areas of the arms and legs supplied by different nerve roots. An X-ray of the spine may be taken. Your caregiver may suggest other imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), if needed.

TREATMENT

Treatment includes rest, modifying your activities, and applying ice and heat. Your caregiver may prescribe medicines to reduce your pain and may ask you to do some exercises to strengthen your back. In some cases, you may need surgery. You and your caregiver will decide on the treatment that is best for you.

HOME CARE INSTRUCTIONS

  • Follow proper lifting and walking techniques as advised by your caregiver.

  • Maintain good posture.

  • Exercise regularly as advised.

  • Perform relaxation exercises.

  • Change your sitting, standing, and sleeping habits as advised. Change positions frequently.

  • Lose weight as advised.

  • Stop smoking if you smoke.

  • Wear supportive footwear.

SEEK MEDICAL CARE IF:

Your pain does not go away within 1 to 4 weeks.

SEEK IMMEDIATE MEDICAL CARE IF:

  • Your pain is severe.

  • You notice weakness in your arms, hands, or legs.

  • You begin to lose control of your bladder or bowel movements.

MAKE SURE YOU:

  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.