The discs in the spine serve many purposes for movement, comfort, and one’s overall health. But there are conditions that can greatly impact the functionality of this part of the body and even cause severe chronic pain. Degenerative disc disease is one of these conditions to be wary of.
Today, we’ll take a look at some of your questions about degenerative disc disease. What exactly is it? What are the stages of this condition? And most importantly, can this disease be prevented and treated? All of your questions and more about this progressive condition are answered below.
What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Defined simply, degenerative disc disease is a condition that directly impacts the health of the discs throughout your spine. These discs rest between the spine’s vertebrae and serve the purpose of being shock absorbers. They cushion the vertebrae of the spine to offer protection and comfort. When these discs are at their optimal strength, they help people to:
- And more
When somebody has degenerative disc disease, it means that at least one of these discs in the spine is weakened. This is not caused by an actual disease as the name would have you believe. Rather, this condition is a progressive disorder that gets worse over time. This is due to the fact that the discs lose their cushioning throughout time, which is why people over the age of 60 are at a higher risk of developing degenerative disc disease. Furthermore, people who have conditions that impact their joints have more of a chance of having this spine disease as well. Concerns such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammatory diseases can make degenerative disc disease worse.
Plus, anything that adds extra strain to the joints, such as repetitive motions or heavy lifting in different occupations, can worsen the symptoms of degenerative disc disease. Injuries to the back will also increase the likelihood of developing this condition. Once a disc is hurt, injured, or begins to deteriorate, there is no way to reverse the damage. This is why it’s important to catch this disease in its early stages before the symptoms become unmanageable.
What Are the Stages of The Disease?
It’s not uncommon for people to start feeling the symptoms of degenerative disc disease as early as 30 or 40. The most commonly felt symptom of degenerative disc disease is chronic low, middle, and upper back pain. Sometimes this pain can be felt in the neck as well. And when disc degeneration is severe enough, it can even cause nerve pain that radiates throughout the arms or legs.
Unfortunately, these symptoms tend to get worse over time, especially if this disease is not treated right away. The symptoms also progress with the stages of the disease. If you are having symptoms of this disorder, your doctor may recommend that you have a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess which stage of degeneration you would fall into.
Degenerative disc disease typically follows the four stages as described below:
- Stage 1—In this earliest stage of degenerative disc disease, the discs in the spine are just beginning to lose some of their natural cushioning of the vertebrae. This means that the vertebrae are less protected from injury or strain. Most often, people who are in stage 1 of this disorder feel mild discomfort in the back or neck.
- Stage 2—It doesn’t take long before the symptoms of degenerative disc disease become much more disruptive. Most people who have entered stage 2 of this disorder experience chronic back or neck pain. This pain can begin to interfere with one’s ability to work, sleep well, or be mobile as they normally would be.
- Stage 3—As the condition continues to worsen, the spine begins to lose more and more of its functionality. By stage 3, the spine might even become misshapen. Oftentimes, the spine becomes very stiff at this stage of the disease, making it even harder to move. Other issues like spinal stenosis and bone spurs can develop at this stage as well. With this comes more pain, discomfort, and mobility challenges.
- Stage 4—At its most severe stage, degenerative disc disease is at its most painful and most impactful. In fact, people who reach this stage of the disorder frequently experience such severe pain that they aren’t able to function. Stage 4 degenerative disc disorder can create more problems, like herniated discs, disc disintegration, and nerve damage. This stage of the disorder can be challenging to treat because of how painful it is. This is why it’s essential to get help before reaching this point.
Can Degenerative Disc Disease Be Prevented or Treated?
Though degenerative disc disease cannot be entirely avoided, there are some things that people can do to reduce the risk of developing this disorder and feeling its side effects. Doing gentle exercises to strengthen the spine and increase flexibility can be useful, to begin. Added on to this, doing anything that helps to protect the health of the joints in the spine is important. Taking care not to strain the spine if possible is a great preventative measure that one can take. This might mean getting accommodations at work, asking for help, or taking breaks as needed.
Of course, once the damage begins to the discs, it cannot be undone. In these cases, treatment is available to help alleviate the symptoms of this disorder. Treatment might include:
- Physical therapy
- Taking over-the-counter pain relievers
- Applying heat or ice to the affected areas
- Surgery to replace the damage disc
It’s incredibly vital to speak with your doctor about your symptoms and get the proper imaging in order to find out which treatment method will be most effective for you. If more drastic measures like surgery are needed, you will work closely with your health care team to prepare for this process as well as the recovery.
The reality is that many people live with the painful symptoms of degenerative disc disease every day without knowing what is wrong. If you are struggling with chronic back and/or neck pain that only seems to be getting worse, speak to your doctor as well as others in the chronic pain community to figure out the next steps that you can take to stop the damage, protect your spine, and get relief from the pain.
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