Degenerative Disc Disease

What is degenerative disc disease?

Located between the vertebrae, spinal discs act shock absorbers and to allow motion in the spine. But what is degenerative disc disease and how does it impact the discs in the spine? Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is a term used to describe changes to the disc that adversely affect these functions.  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. This can be accelerated by injury or repetitive stress to the spine.

Affected discs may be located in the:

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

Each disc is comprised of a tough outer ring called the annulus fibrosis, and a gel-filled center called the nucleus pulposus.  With degenerative disc disease, the outer ring may become damaged and crack or compress.  When this happens, the gel in the center may leak or be forced out of the disc.

What are the common symptoms?

Symptoms vary from person to person, but symptoms of DDD may include:

  • Pain in the affected area which can be quite severe
  • Pain is often chronic, and you may experience periods of increased symptoms lasting days or even months
  • Pain can increase with activities such as bending and twisting
  • If the location of the affected disc(s) is in the lower back, sitting can make symptoms worse

How do you diagnose degenerative disc disease?

The first and most important step in the treatment of back pain is a careful anatomical diagnosis, including a thorough patient history, physical exam, and diagnostic studies (X-ray or MRI) to identify the source of the pain.

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

How is degenerative disc disease treated non-surgically?

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

Initial treatment may include:

How is degenerative disc disease treated surgically?

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. Fusion surgery attaches the damaged vertebral bone 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 serves the purpose of reducing pain at the damaged disc.

Steps in a Fusion Surgery:

  • A bone graft is added to the spine segment being fused.
  • The surgical site is treated to set up a biological response that causes the bone graft to grow 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:

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