It is common for an individual to experience diminishing spinal discs as they gradually age. Sometimes, an individual will develop what is known as degenerative disc disease. Although it’s not technically a disease, degenerative disc disease is a condition in which a damaged disc causes pain. According to Cedars-Sinai, “a wide range of symptoms and severity is associated with this condition.”
Degenerative disc disease can occur if a disc is injured. A disc is unable to repair itself once injured, thus it sets in motion a period of degeneration that can last 20 to 30 years. The degeneration period is divided into three stages: acute pain, an unstable bone and a period when the body restabilizes the back and less pain is felt. With the condition come many symptoms, ranging from pain that worsens while sitting, bending, lifting or twisting, relief from moving about or standing, to numbness and tingling and weakness in the lower limb muscles. Depending on where the injured disc is located, the pain from the condition can occur in the lower back, buttocks, thighs, neck, arms and/or hands.
There are several risk factors that could lead to a greater possibility of the development of degenerative disc disease. For example, as someone ages, his or her spinal disc tends to dry out, causing it to not handle shocks as well. The disc is composed of approximately 80 percent water at birth. Other factors that could lead to the condition are daily activities and involvement in sports that can cause tears in the disc. According to Cedars-Sinai, most people have “some degree of disc degeneration” by the time they reach the age of 60, but not everyone experiences pain in the lower back. With a more exposed disc, individuals could sustain injuries that result in swelling, soreness and difficulty moving.
A specialist can provide a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease based on an analysis of medical history and a physical examination in addition to descriptions of the symptoms present. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan might be administered, revealing any damage to the discs. However, an MRI cannot confirm an individual has degenerative disc disease.
If an individual is diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, treatment might come in the form of an artificial disc replacement, surgery or a form of non-operative treatment. Non-operative treatment usually involves, among other things, physical therapy, alternative medicine, and drug therapy. According to Medscape, a specialist might intervene by assigning the patient to back school, in which the patient is taught proper body mechanics and posture when engaging in everyday activities.
Recently, researchers from Duke University published a study revealing that treatment of the condition through cell therapies “may stop or reverse the pain and disability of degenerative disc disease, and the loss of material between vertebrae,” according to MedicalXPress. The researchers discovered a new biomaterial that delivers “a booster shot of reparative cells” to the cushion found between spinal discs, the nucleus pulposus. These findings could pave the way for future research on treatment options for degenerative disc disease.