Despite the name, degenerative disc disease is not actually a progressive disease in the spine. It simply describes the process of natural disc degeneration as we age. Almost everybody will experience some disc degeneration as they get older, but only those with pain, weakness or numbness are diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. Today, we’ll take a closer look at the condition, and how it is treated.
Wear and tear over the years takes a toll on your back, and everyone will experience some natural degeneration. Although degeneration is a natural process, your back also inherently works to relieve pain and discomfort from the degeneration. This process, known as the degenerative cascade, was first described by Dr. William H. Kirkaldy-Willis. He describes the process in three stages:
- The first part of disc degeneration is the most noticeable, as it is categorized by significant dysfunction caused by acute back pain.
- The next stage involves some back instability at the affected vertebral segment. During this stage patients describe intermittent bursts of moderate back pain.
- Eventually, the body naturally re-stabilizes the segment and bouts of back pain occur less frequently.
So while the body acts as a natural pain reliever, even infrequent bouts of pain can be debilitating, and many people seek treatment for their degeneration. Also, disc degeneration can cause other painful conditions, so it’s worth it to see a specialist if symptoms like pain, weakness, tingling, numbness or shooting discomfort persist.
Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment
Doctors use a multi-faceted approach to treat degenerative disc disease. Treating the condition usually occurs with three intervention strategies:
- Pain Control – Pain control is the first step, as it is necessary for the next two. Pain is typically caused by instability and inflammation, and doctors work to alleviate this discomfort through anti-inflammatory medications or cortisone injections.
- Exercise and Rehab Therapy – Exercise and movement therapy may sound counter-intuitive, but it actually helps prevent further pain. It also acts as a natural pain reliever. Work with your physician or a physical therapist to develop an exercise routine to strengthen areas of your back.
- Lifestyle Modifications – Lifestyle modifications like posture awareness, regular exercise and avoiding alcohol and nicotine can help keep symptoms under control.
If pain and discomfort still persist after 3-6 months, surgery may be the best option. There are a number of different operations that can provide relief, from minimally invasive spinal fusion to disc replacement. Your doctor can walk you all of your options should conservative treatment prove ineffective.
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