What Exactly is Degenerative Disc Disease?

First, let’s understand your spine. Your spine is made up of 24 bones, called vertebrae. Muscles and ligaments connect these bones to the spinal column. The many muscles that connect to the spinal column help support the upright posture of the spine and move the spine. The spinal column is what gives the body form and function. The spinal column holds and protects the spinal cord, which is a bundle of nerves that send signals to other parts of the body.

In between each vertebra is a soft, gel-like cushion called an intervertebral disc. The discs act as shock absorbers from everyday movements by helping to absorb pressure. Pressure on the body comes from anything such as sitting, walking, bending, and normal day-to-day activities. The discs also prevent the bones from rubbing against each other.

Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back and neck pain. Degenerative disc disease is not a disease, despite the name, but rather more of a condition in which natural, age-related wear and tear on a disc causes pain, instability, and other symptoms. It is normally the result of aging on your spine, however, younger people can have symptoms as well. Spinal injuries can also start the degenerative process of your discs at an earlier time.

Loss of fluid also contributes to the degenerative process of discs. In a healthy, young adult, the discs consist of up to 90 percent fluid. As a person ages, the fluid content decreases, making the discs thinner and they start to become stiff. Because the discs become thin and stiff, they become less effective as a shock absorber and this can create pain and problems.

Common symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:

  • Pain that is worse when sitting. While seated, the discs of the lower back have three times more load on them than when standing.
  • Pain that gets worse when bending, lifting or twisting.
  • Feeling better while walking or even running than when sitting or standing for long periods of time.
  • Feeling better changing positions or lying down.
  • Periods of severe pain that come and go. These can last a few days to a few months before getting better. They can range from nagging pain to disabling pain. Pain can affect the low back, buttocks, thighs or the neck, depending on where the affected disc is, radiating to the arms and hands.
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities.
  • Weakness in the leg muscles or foot drop, a possible sign of damage to the nerve root.

Risk Factors:

  • An acute or sudden injury, such as a fall
  • Obesity
  • Strenuous physical work
  • Tobacco smoking

If you are experiencing any sort of back or neck pain it doesn’t hurt to reach out to a professional to get it checked out. Normal wear and tear is bound to happen, but, over time can get worse or lead to other issues if not treated correctly or if risk factors are not addressed.

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