Degenerative Disc Disease
The vertebrae and discs of your spine bear significant loads and allow a wide range of motion. Over time this leads to wear and tear of the spinal discs, which can develop into what is known as degenerative disc disease, one of the most common causes of lower back and neck pain.
DFW Center for Spinal Disorders offers a variety of treatment options for Degenerative Disc Disease in Fort Worth and Dallas.
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative disc disease isn’t actually a “disease,” but a condition where the natural wear and tear on a disc causes pain, instability, and other symptoms. The process of degradation of the discs is normal and occurs in most people. But “degeneration” doesn’t continue, as it would in a true disease. In fact, this condition mainly affects people between the ages of 30 to 50. It can actually improve as the discs become more dried out as the person moves into his or her later 50s and beyond.
These changes in the discs can occur throughout the spine but are most typical in the discs of the lower back (the lumbar spine) and the neck (the cervical spine). Damaged discs in these areas can lead to neck and back pain, but the pain can also radiate into the arms and legs.
What are the Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease?
A natural part of aging is the breakdown of our spinal discs. This degeneration includes two major changes that can lead to pain.
- Decreasing fluid in the discs — As they lose fluid, the discs lose their ability to act as shock absorbers and they become less flexible. As they lose fluid, they also become thinner, narrowing the space between the vertebrae.
- Tears or cracks in the outer membrane — The outer membrane, called annulus fibrosis, can develop tiny tears or cracks, allowing the jellylike material inside the disc (the nucleus pulposus) to leak out. This makes the disc bulge or rupture.
These changes are more likely if a person performs frequent heavy lifting, is obese, or is a cigarette smoker. An injury from a fall or car wreck can also begin the degeneration process. Because the discs don’t have a blood supply, they cannot heal themselves.
When the distance between vertebrae closes as the discs thin, the body responds by creating bone spurs to try to stabilize the spine. These bone spurs can put pressure on the spinal nerve roots or the spinal cord, resulting in pain and affecting nerve function. Bulging discs can also apply pressure in the same way.
What Are The Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?
Many people have degenerative disc disease but have no pain. Others may have the same amount of damage but have severe pain. The location of the pain correlates to the location of the affected disc. A bad neck disc can lead to neck pain that radiates out into the arms. An affected disc in the lower back may lead to back pain that also radiates into the legs and buttocks.
The usual indication of degenerative disc disease is low-intensity continuous pain around the degenerating disc. This will change to occasional severe, debilitating pain, often after placing abnormal stress on the spine such as when improperly lifting an object or during a fall.
If the nerves are being impinged, the person will develop numbness in his or her leg or arm, depending on the disc location.
Non-Surgical Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease
Our doctor at DFW Center for Spinal Disorders will work directly with you to help reduce the chronic pain and prevent future flare-ups, if possible. Our treatment plan includes a combination of pain management methods, including core strengthening exercises/physical therapy, and lifestyle modification. Most cases experience substantial improvement without the need for surgery.
These are non-surgical treatments for mild to moderate symptoms:
- Postural training
- Physical therapy
- Manual/chiropractic manipulation
- Anti-inflammatory medications – this can include medicines such as ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin (Bayer), and naproxen (Aleve) for lower level pain.
- Core strengthening exercises – this targets muscles surrounding the spinal cord which allows for greater support as muscles build in strength, and helps to reduce pain and instability.
- Epidural steroid injections – Our doctor will inject steroids around the spine’s protective outer layer. This provides temporary pain relief and helps to improve mobility.
- TENS unit (electrical nerve stimulation) – this device administers electric pulses through the body to help interfere with and minimize pain signals.
Is Degenerative Disc Disease Really a Disease?
No. There is no genetic component that makes you more likely to experience disc degeneration in your spine. This condition, though referred to as “disease,” relates to the natural breakdown of a spinal disc after an injury or simply due to wear and tear. People who perform heavy lifting or strenuous physical activity may have a higher risk of developing disc degeneration over time.
How is Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosed?
Degenerative disc disease is a relatively common condition. Your doctor may recognize it by your symptoms. However, it is imperative that we reach an accurate diagnosis and also understand the severity of the condition that is causing pain. In addition to reviewing your symptoms, the doctor will perform a thorough examination of your spine. He may also order imaging such as x-rays or a CT scan. Imaging can help the doctor measure the space between your vertebrae, indicating how much disc height has decreased.
Can Spinal Discs Regenerate?
A spinal disc has three different components, each of which is unique in structure and function. These small body parts, made up of fluid and cartilage tissue, do not have good blood supply so are not regenerative in the way that other organs can be. Once a disc has been injured or has become worn down, it will not return to normal. Our objective in recommending treatments is to slow the progression of degeneration while also sustaining comfort and mobility.
What will happen if I Don’t Seek Treatment?
It is important to receive a proper diagnosis for back or neck pain. A degenerating disc will not get better on its own. Your treatment will focus on strengthening the muscle and other tissue around the spine, improving flexibility and mobility, correcting posture, and minimizing the strain on the affected disc. If you do not receive adequate care for degenerative disc disease, your symptoms will progressively worsen.
What Are the Stages of Degenerative Disc Disease?
There are a few stages that a degenerating disc may progress through if treatment is not provided. These include:
- Stage One: Dysfunction. In this stage, one or more discs are just beginning to lose function. Spinal support degrades, and you may experience mild neck or back pain as a result.
- Stage Two: Drying. In this stage, there is relative spinal instability in the affected spinal segment. This is due in part to changes in the disk, such as leaking and drying. Dehydration of the disc can reduce the space between vertebrae.
- Stage Three: Restabilization. As curvature and space degrade, your body makes an effort to restabilize the spinal structure. It does so with osteophytes, better known as bone spurs. Bone spurs can press on the spinal cord, worsening pain.
- Stage Four: Disintegration. Severe thinning of the disc can result in disintegration or collapse. In this stage, there may be little to no space left in between vertebrae. Stage four requires surgical repair.
How Fast Will My Disc Disease Progress?
How quickly your degenerative disc disease progresses may be largely up to you. Degeneration can occur more quickly if you have other spinal conditions or poor bone health in general. The condition tends to progress more quickly in older people. However, if you attend to your spine with physical therapy and other recommended interventions, you may be able to slow the degenerative process. The best thing you can do for degenerative disc disease is receive proper care. Dr. Tinley is a leader in the field of spinal surgery. Still, he does not look at surgery as the first line of defense against disc degeneration. The sooner you seek care for back or neck pain, the more conservatively your condition may be treated.
Surgical Treatment Options
Our team at DFW Spine Center for Spinal Disorders consider surgery to address degenerative disc disease only if pain persists. If the patient has serious pain that isn’t responding to the non-surgical treatments, we may recommend decompression surgery to remove bone spurs that are pushing on nearby nerve roots or the spinal cord. Fusion surgery may also be an option. Through surgery, our goal is to target the mechanisms causing the spinal pain.
In order for the doctor to determine which surgery is right for you, they must first evaluate the severity of your condition. We strongly recommend that you make schedule an appointment for Degenerative Disc Disease in Fort Worth, TX.
See What Our Patients Are Saying…
“Dr Tinley is a leader in the field of spinal surgery. His technique is excellent but he does not rush to pursue surgery. Very good at explaining your condition and allowing you to decide a course of treatment.” – R.W.
Schedule a Consultation
If you are seeking treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease in Fort Worth, or have any concerns about your spinal health in general, contact our office today! Schedule a physical evaluation by calling 817-916-4685 or by clicking here to send us an Appointment Request form. Our practice looks forward to serving you!