Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD), also known as Degeneration Of The Intervertebral Disc, is a disabling condition wherein one or more spinal discs suffer intense structural damage. This ailment predominantly happens due to ageing, with the gradual weakening of the spine post the age of 40, in both men and women. Rubbery soft pads known as spinal discs are present between the vertebrae i.e. the bones in the spinal column, which function as shock absorbers, enabling easy movement, bending, twisting of the back. However, these flexible assemblies deteriorate with time, prompting the vertebrae to brush against one another, leading to increased friction, stiffness and pain in the spine. DDD can in turn trigger various other health anomalies of the spinal cord, such as scoliosis in adults and herniated disc.
Causes Of Degenerative Disc Disease:
The intervertebral discs, otherwise referred to as spinal discs, intervertebral fibrocartilage, are elastic bodies composed of a fibrocartilage tissue material, which supply cushioning in between the bones of the spine i.e. the vertebrae. With increasing age or other causative factors, excessive stress and pressure are applied on the spinal discs which eventually brings about wear and tear and sometimes even severe damage to the structures, leading to DDD.
The foremost reasons why the spinal discs deteriorate are either due to loss of fluid which makes the cushions thinner and narrower, being unable to act as shock absorbers, or cracks in the disc structure, which leads to bulging, ruptures and subsequent breakdown of cartilage.
The natural process of growing older is the primary risk factor for DDD, especially at the age of 40 years and above. Besides ageing, certain aspects make an individual more susceptible to degenerative disc disease, such as obesity, addiction to smoking tobacco, accidental injuries and falls that induce spinal cord breakdown.
The symptoms of degenerative disc disease depend upon the intensity of the pain encountered by the individual as well as if they are already suffering from underlying chronic ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity. In minor cases, people with DDD do not undergo any major pain or physical deformity in the spine and in such scenarios, it is not considered an illness but merely a consequence of ageing. When DDD is more advanced, it results in prominent incapacitating situations, with the typical signs affecting the neck and back and including:
- Pain in the neck and shoulders
- Low back pain that radiates down the buttocks, thighs and legs
- Numb feeling and a sense of tingling in the arms, legs
- Muscle spasms in the neck and back
- Muscle strain while bending or lifting objects
- Stiffness in the shoulder and hip joints
- Increasing intensity of pain while sitting or standing
The doctor questions the patient about any recent falls, accidents that may have induced injury to the neck, spine and also records the exact regions of the spine where there is severe pain. A physical examination is then conducted, to determine the strength of the back/neck muscles, the optimal functioning of the nerves in the spinal region, besides the intensity of pain while moving the body.
Furthermore, imaging analyses such as a CT scan, MRI scan may also be carried out, to obtain clear visuals of the alignment of the vertebral discs in the spine and to look for signs of damage.
If no discomforting symptoms are accompanying DDD, then no specific treatment is required and it is regarded as a normal result of the ageing of the spine and the body. If DDD instigates back or neck pain, with stiffness in the muscles, making it difficult to carry out normal day-to-day activities at home or work, then appropriate treatment based on the severity of the condition is recommended by the physician.
Initially, non-invasive remedial measures such as physical therapy sessions involving strengthening exercises of the back, neck, spine, aside from anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving medications and steroid injections are given, to alleviate aching in the spinal column. The healthcare provider also advises the patient to apply a cold compress, hot water bag and engage in yoga, to soothe distress in the muscles.
The majority of instances of degenerative disc disease do not require surgery. However, if the prescribed treatment options are not effective in mitigating body pain, then the medical expert advises the patient to undergo spinal decompression surgery, which involves removing the segments in the spine with extensive damage, to lessen pressure on the remaining vertebrae, spinal discs, adjoining muscles and nerves.