8 Things You Need to Know about Degenerative Disc Disease

degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease, also known as spinal osteoarthritis, is a common condition that affects the joints and discs of the spine.

It can cause pain, stiffness, and limited mobility, making daily activities challenging for those affected. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for degenerative disc disease.

1. What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease, or degenerative arthritis of the spine, is characterised by the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions the joints and discs in the neck and lower back. As the cartilage deteriorates, the bones may rub against each other, leading to pain, inflammation, and the formation of bone spurs.

2. Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease

The exact cause of degenerative disc disease is unknown. However, several factors may contribute to its development. These include:

  • Age: degenerative disc disease is more common as people age. The wear and tear on the joints over time can lead to the breakdown of cartilage.

  • Weight: Being overweight puts extra stress on the joints, increasing the risk of osteoarthritis.

  • Joint injuries: Previous injuries or trauma to the spine can accelerate the degeneration of cartilage.

  • Genetics: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing osteoarthritis.

  • Repetitive stress: Jobs or sports that involve repetitive movements or stress on the spine can contribute to the development of degenerative disc disease.

3. Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

The symptoms of degenerative disc disease can vary from person to person. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain and stiffness: The affected individual may experience pain and stiffness in the neck or lower back. The pain may worsen with movement or after prolonged periods of inactivity.

  • Limited mobility: As the condition progresses, the range of motion in the spine may become limited, making it difficult to perform daily activities.

  • Numbness and weakness: In severe cases, degenerative disc disease can compress the nerves, leading to numbness and weakness in the arms or legs.

  • Crepitus: Some individuals may experience a grinding sensation or noise when moving the affected joints.

4. Diagnosing Degenerative Disc Disease

To diagnose degenerative disc disease, a healthcare professional will typically perform a thorough medical history review, physical examination, and order diagnostic tests. These may include:

  • X-rays: X-rays can reveal bone damage, bone spurs, and the loss of cartilage or discs. However, they may not detect early cartilage damage.

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): An MRI can provide detailed images of the spine, showing possible damage to discs or narrowing of areas where spinal nerves exit.

  • Blood tests: Blood tests may be conducted to rule out other conditions that may present with similar symptoms.

5. Treatment Options for Degenerative Disc Disease

While there is no cure for spinal osteoarthritis, several treatment options can help manage the symptoms and improve quality of life. These include:

Non-Pharmacological Treatments:

  • Physiotherapy: A physiotherapist can design a personalised exercise program to improve strength, flexibility, and overall mobility.

  • Weight management: Losing weight can reduce stress on the joints and alleviate symptoms.

  • Assistive devices: The use of assistive devices, such as braces or canes, can provide support and reduce pressure on the affected joints.

  • Heat and cold therapy: Applying heat or cold to the affected area can help reduce pain and inflammation.

Pharmacological Treatments:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Over-the-counter or prescription NSAIDs can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.

  • Topical creams or ointments: Topical treatments containing capsaicin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide localised pain relief.

  • Corticosteroid injections: In some cases, corticosteroid injections may be administered directly into the affected joint to reduce inflammation and provide temporary pain relief.

  • Pain medications: In severe cases, stronger pain medications may be prescribed to manage chronic pain.

Surgical Options:

  • Joint replacement: For individuals with severe joint damage, joint replacement surgery may be recommended to alleviate pain and improve mobility.

  • Spinal fusion: Spinal fusion surgery may be performed to stabilise the spine and reduce pain caused by degenerative disc disease.

6. Prevention and Lifestyle Modifications

Although spinal osteoarthritis cannot be entirely prevented, certain lifestyle modifications can help reduce the risk or slow down the progression of the condition. These include:

  • Regular exercise: Engaging in regular low-impact exercises, such as swimming or walking, can help strengthen the muscles supporting the spine and improve overall joint health.

  • Maintaining a healthy weight: Maintaining a healthy weight reduces stress on the joints, particularly the spine.

  • Protecting the spine: Practising good posture, using proper lifting techniques, and avoiding activities that put excessive strain on the spine can help prevent or minimise the risk of degenerative disc disease.

7. Interprofessional Treatment Approach

The management of spinal osteoarthritis often requires a collaborative approach involving various healthcare professionals, including:

  • Primary care physician: The primary care physician plays a crucial role in diagnosing and managing degenerative disc disease. They may refer the patient to specialists as needed.

  • Rheumatologist: Rheumatologists specialise in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and related conditions. They can provide expert guidance on managing degenerative disc disease.

  • Physiotherapist: Physiotherapists design exercise programs tailored to the individual’s needs, aiming to improve mobility, flexibility, and overall function.

  • Orthopaedic surgeon: In severe cases, an orthopaedic surgeon may be consulted to discuss surgical options for joint replacement or spinal fusion.

8. Living with Degenerative Disc Disease

Living with degenerative disc disease can be challenging, but there are strategies to improve daily life:

  • Self-care: Practising self-care techniques, such as stress management, relaxation exercises, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, can help manage pain and improve overall well-being.

  • Assistive devices: Utilising assistive devices, such as ergonomic furniture or adaptive tools, can make daily tasks more manageable.

  • Emotional support: Seeking emotional support from loved ones, support groups, or mental health professionals can help individuals cope with the emotional impact of living with degenerative disc disease.

Spinal osteoarthritis is a common condition that affects the joints and discs of the spine, causing pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. While there is no cure, various treatment options can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life. By adopting a collaborative approach involving healthcare professionals and making lifestyle modifications, individuals with degenerative disc disease can lead fulfilling lives despite the challenges posed by the condition.

Remember, always consult with a healthcare professional for personalised advice and treatment options for your specific condition. At Core Fitness, our well-trained physiotherapists are experienced in treating degenerative disc disease through a combination of manual therapy, clinical Pilates, gentle stretch therapy and other complementary modalities such as rolfing and craniosacral therapy.

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