Degenerative Disc Disease

What role do discs play in the spine?

Discs are the shock absorbers that separate the bones in the spine. They are like jelly doughnuts with an outside wall and a soft center. Discs allow movements in all directions, while providing the strength to keep you upright. Outer layers of each disc attach to outer portions of the bones to effectively hold your spine together.

What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a term used to describe changes to the disc that make the disc less effective. As we age, our discs dry out, becoming less flexible and less effective as shock absorbers. Because there is minimal blood supply to the discs, it is difficult for them to heal or repair themselves. Injury or repetitive stress to the spine can make this degeneration worse.

Degenerative disc disease may cause the disc’s outer layer to crack or compress. When this happens, the gel in the center may leak or be forced out of the disc.

Affected discs may be located in the:

  • Neck (cervical spine)
  • Middle of the back (thoracic spine)
  • Lower back (lumbar spine)

What are the common symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

Symptoms vary from person to person, but symptoms of degenerative disc disease may include:

  • Pain in the affected area, which can be quite severe and can last for weeks or months
  • Pain that increases with activities such as bending and twisting
  • Symptoms that worsen with sitting (if affected discs are in the lower back)

How do you diagnose degenerative disc disease?

To diagnose degenerative disc disease, your doctor will review your health history and perform a physical examination. Your physician may also recommend diagnostic imaging, such as an X-ray or MRI, to confirm the diagnosis.

Learn more from one of our spine specialists about what to expect at your first spine visit.

How is degenerative disc disease treated nonsurgically?

Even when disc degeneration does cause pain, most cases can be treated with conservative, nonsurgical therapies.

Nonsurgical treatment may include:

Is there anything I can do at home to help heal a disc?

There are several things you can do at home to reduce the pain:

  • Find a comfortable position and rest, perhaps with a pillow under your knees
  • Take short walks, as your pain allows
  • Take medications that reduce pain, swelling, and irritation, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) or naproxen (such as Aleve)
  • Try applying heat or ice

If you have significant weakness in your leg, it could be a sign of more significant nerve compression, and we would recommend a more urgent evaluation by one of our providers.

What are the surgical treatment options for degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc surgery is considered only when conservative treatment fails to provide relief from pain. Fusion and disc replacement surgeries are the most common options for pain caused by degenerative discs.

Disc Replacement Surgery

Summit Orthopedics spine specialist and surgeon Nicholas Wills, M.D., shares whether a damaged disc can be replaced in this Ask the Expert Video below.

When is a disc replacement a preferred option?

Disc replacement is most effective when the source of the pain is contained in the disc and the disc alone, and when the patient meets other qualifications, including a healthy weight, no prior major spine surgery, and no deformity in the spine.

More resources on disc replacement surgery:

Disc Fusion Surgery

Spinal fusion is currently considered the “gold standard” among surgical procedures used to address advanced degenerative disc disease. During this surgery, a vertebral bone is attached, or “fused,” to an adjacent vertebral bone so that they grow together into one long bone. A fusion will reduce freedom of movement in the spine by making the fused vertebral bones immobile, but that immobility reduces pain from the damaged disc.

How spine fusion works:

  • During surgery, a bone graft is added to the spine segment being fused
  • Your body grows new bony tissue over the bone graft between the two vertebral segments, fusing them together
  • When the fused bones heal, the fusion prevents movement at the joint

More resources on fusion surgery:

Summit Orthopedics offers comprehensive spine expertise

Summit’s spine care team is recognized by the National Committee for Quality Assurance for the comprehensive expertise of our patient-centered care. Our back specialists diagnose spine problems and design custom treatment plans built on a conservative, nonsurgical approach. Most patients find relief through treatments including guided injections, specialized physical therapy, biofeedback, exercise, activity modification, and medication. When conservative care does not relieve symptoms, our highly skilled surgeons offer proven, evidence-based surgical options. Together with you, we will determine the right course of action.

Start your journey to a healthy spine. Find your spine expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a spine consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNVadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota.

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