Degenerative disc disease is a common diagnosis for people experiencing lower back pain. It’s also one of the most misunderstood back conditions. Here are five things your doctor may not have told you about what degenerative disc disease is and how you can ease your symptoms:
1. Disc Degeneration is Normal
You may be wondering how something normal can feel so bad. Don’t worry; your pain is not normal, but the degeneration itself is. Discs are fluid-filled structures that sit between the vertebrae in the spine. They provide shock absorption and aid with smooth movement. The discs start out being 80% water. Over time they dehydrate and become thinner and less cushy.
This happens to nearly everyone. It’s why many older adults notice increased stiffness or less range of motion in their back than they used to have. These are the only symptoms for many people, and they often are not severe enough to impact daily activities. Other people experience pain associated with disc degeneration. Researchers aren’t sure why some people have pain, and others don’t, but they think it may be related to differences in immune function and could have a genetic component.
It’s the pain, not the degeneration itself, that defines degenerative disc disease. Other diseases like arthritis can happen as a result of disc degeneration. A flat disc causes the facet joints in your spine to rub together. Over time this can break down cartilage and cause inflammation and pain. If you’ve been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, you should ask your provider if you show signs of arthritis in your facet joints. Sometimes pain associated with degenerative discs has more to do with facet arthritis than with the discs themselves. Knowing this can lead to more successful treatment.
2. Degenerative Disc Disease Can Refer to Other Conditions
Sometimes doctors use the term to describe herniated or bulging discs. This can be confusing because the treatments and prognosis for herniated and bulging discs are different from age-related degeneration. Age-related degeneration causes hardening and thinning of the discs. It is a normal process that cannot be reversed. Herniated or bulging discs can happen to young people with healthy discs. Trauma or excessive wear and tear (from sports or labor) can cause discs to herniate or slip out of place. These conditions can be reversed.
Disc herniation happens when a disc sustains a deep tear in the outer wall and leaks fluid. The fluid contains proteins that irritate surrounding nerves and tissues, causing acute pain. Small tears in the disc are common and are considered a normal part of aging. Tears large enough to leak nearly always cause pain and are not considered normal (though they are common in people over 30). If you have a herniated disc, you may notice a burning pain that shoots out from your back and down into your glutes and legs.
A disc that has shifted into an abnormal position and puts pressure on nerves is called a bulging disc. Bulging discs can also cause acute pain. Both bulging and herniated discs may affect nearby nerves and cause numbness, tingling, or weakness in the legs or arms. Bulging and herniated discs usually heal with non-invasive treatments and home care within four to six weeks.
3. More Pain Doesn’t Equal More Damage
Pain is stressful, but it can be helpful to know that your pain doesn’t necessarily mean that your disc degeneration is severe. Some people with mild degeneration experience severe pain, while others with more severe degeneration have mild pain.
If you have a herniated or bulging disc, you may feel pain radiating from the injured area. This happens because nerves that run from your back into your legs or arms have been affected. You probably have one small area of damage that is causing pain in a larger area of your body. Once the damage has been healed, and the nerves are no longer irritated, this radiating pain should clear up.
4. You Don’t Need Opioids or Surgery
Age-related disc degeneration can’t be stopped or reversed, but pain and stiffness can be treated. The best part is that you don’t have to resort to addictive medications or surgery to be pain-free. Opioids and muscle relaxants have not been proven reliable pain relievers for pain related to degenerative disc disease. Surgery is only recommended when arthritis is present and bone spurs are interfering with the spinal cord. 98% of patients with disc-related pain can be successfully treated without surgery.
5. You Don’t Have to Live with The Pain
Conservative, non-invasive treatments like spinal decompression therapy and certain injections are recommended as first-line treatments for degenerative disc disease.
Spinal decompression therapy is an innovative type of traction. It uses a computerized system that has been proven to create negative pressures between vertebrae by gently stretching the spine. Decompression therapy relieves pressure on nerves, sucks bulging discs and leaking fluid back into place, and encourages blood flow to the injured area. Blood flow is important for acute injuries and pain from age-related degeneration. Blood flow brings nutrients and oxygen and carries away inflammatory waste. It can also improve facet joint arthritis symptoms by decreasing inflammation and swelling.
Cortisone injections can relieve inflammation that may be causing pain. Cortisone is derived from natural chemicals found in our bodies. Injections to the facet joint or disc area can relieve pain for several months.
Platelet-Rich Plasma injections (PRP) have also shown promise in treating herniated discs and disc degeneration. PRP injections are made using a small sample of the patient’s blood that is processed to separate the blood cells from the liquid portion of the blood, called plasma. Plasma contains platelets that produce growth factors meant to aid healing. Injecting these at the site of arthritis or other injuries reduces inflammation and can even help regenerate tissue and heal tears.
Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease in Houston
At Vanguard Spine & Sport, we provide cutting-edge treatments for patients with degenerative disc disease and other disc-related injuries. Our providers can double-check your diagnosis and answer any questions you may have. We create a personalized treatment plan for our patients and listen to patient feedback throughout the healing process. Our goal is to heal your pain so you can live your best life.