Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a condition where one or more discs in the back lose their strength. Degenerative disc disease, despite the name, isn’t technically a disease. It’s a progressive condition that happens over time from wear and tear, or injury.
The discs in your back are located in between the vertebrae of the spine. They act as cushions and shock absorbers. Discs help you stand up straight. And they also help you move through everyday motions, such as twisting around and bending over.
Over time, DDD can worsen. It can cause mild to extreme pain that may interfere with your everyday activities.
Some of the most common symptoms of DDD include pain that:
- primarily affects the lower back
- might extend to legs and buttocks
- extends from neck to arms
- worsens after twisting or bending
- can be worse from sitting
- comes and goes in as little as a few days and up to several months
People with DDD might experience less pain after walking and exercise. DDD can also cause weakened leg muscles, as well as numbness in your arms or legs.
DDD is primarily caused by wear and tear of spinal discs. Over time, discs naturally tend to dry out and lose their support and function. This can lead to pain and other symptoms of DDD. DDD can start developing in your 30s or 40s, and then progressively worsen.
This condition can also be caused by injury and overuse, which may result from sports or repetitive activities. Once a disc is damaged, it can’t repair itself.
Age is one of the greatest risk factors for DDD. The discs in between the vertebrae naturally shrink down and lose their cushiony support as you get older. Almost every adult over 60 years of age has some form of disc degeneration. Not all cases cause pain.
You may also be at an increased risk of developing DDD if you have a significant back injury. Long-term repetitive activities that place pressure on certain discs can increase your risk, too.
Other risk factors include:
- car accidents
- overweight or obesity
- a sedentary lifestyle
“Weekend warrior” exercising can also increase your risk. Instead, aim for moderate, daily exercise to help strengthen your back without placing undue stress on the spine and discs. There are also other strengthening exercises for the lower back.
An MRI can help detect DDD. Your doctor may order this type of imaging test based on a physical exam as well as an investigation into your overall symptoms and health history. Imaging tests can show damaged discs and help rule out other causes of your pain.
DDD treatments may include one or more of the following options:
Heat or cold therapy
Cold packs can help decrease pain associated with a damaged disc, while heat packs can reduce the inflammation that causes pain.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help alleviate pain from DDD. Ibuprofen (Advil) can minimize pain while also decreasing inflammation. Both medications can cause side effects when taken with other medications, so ask your doctor which one is the most appropriate for you.
Prescription pain relievers
When over-the-counter pain relievers don’t work, you may consider prescription versions. These options should be used with care as they carry the risk of dependency and should be used only in cases where the pain is severe.
Your therapist will guide you through routines that help to strengthen your back muscles while also alleviating pain. Over time, you will likely notice improvements in pain, posture, and overall mobility.
Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor may recommend either an artificial disc replacement or a spinal fusion. You may need surgery if your pain doesn’t resolve or it gets worse after six months. Artificial disc replacement involves replacing the broken disc with a new one made from plastic and metal. Spinal fusion, on the other hand, connects affected vertebrae together as a means of strengthening.
Exercise can help complement other DDD treatments by strengthening the muscles that surround the damaged discs. It can also increase blood flow to help improve painful swelling, while also increasing nutrients and oxygen to the affected area.
Stretching is the first form of exercise that can help DDD. Doing so helps to wake up the back, so you may find it helpful to do some light stretching before you start your day. It’s also important to stretch before doing any type of workout. Yoga is helpful in treating back pain, and it has the additional benefits of increased flexibility and strength through regular practice. These stretches can be done at your desk to relieve work-related back and neck pain.
Advanced forms of DDD can lead to osteoarthritis (OA) in the back. In this form of OA, the vertebrae rub together because there are no discs left to cushion them. This can cause pain and stiffness in the back and severely limit the types of activities you can comfortably accomplish.
Exercise is essential to your overall health, but especially if you have back pain associated with DDD. You may be tempted to lay down from pain. Decreased mobility or immobility may increase your risk for:
- worsening pain
- decreased muscle tone
- reduced flexibility in the back
- blood clots in the legs
Without treatment or therapy, DDD can progress and cause more symptoms. While surgery is an option for DDD, other less invasive treatments and therapies can be just as helpful and at a much lower cost. Talk to your doctor about all your options for DDD. While spinal discs don’t repair themselves, there are a variety of treatments that can help keep you active and pain-free.