Disc degeneration is a common spinal condition that affects many people as they age. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and prevention strategies of degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a crucial step in spine care. In this article, we’ll delve into the symptoms, causes, and effective prevention methods for this spine issue.
What is degenerative disk disease?
Spinal discs are cushioning structures that are made out of two parts – a soft inner part that has a jelly-like structure and a hard outer shell to protect the core of the disc. The jelly-like consistency of the inner disc content comes from its high water content.
As we age, some of the water content of the inner disc material is lost, causing discs to shrink, leading to a loss of height for the spine. This process of water loss is the main cause of degenerative disorders that affect spinal discs.
Recognising the symptoms of disc degeneration is the first step in seeking appropriate treatment. Common symptoms of a degenerated disc include:
- Persistent and localised back pain, especially in the lumbar spine (lower back), is a hallmark symptom of disc degeneration. The other two main regions of the back, namely the thoracic spine (middle back) and cervical spine (upper back and neck) can also be affected.
- In some cases, disc degeneration can also cause referred pain, which is pain that is felt in a different part of the body from its origin. For example, shoulder pain may originate due to a damaged disc in the neck, or leg pain may result from a damaged lumbar disc.
- Individuals with disc degeneration may experience stiffness and reduced flexibility in their spine, leading to difficulty in bending or twisting.
- Nerve compression is probably the main problem that results from a degenerating disc. As discs deteriorate, they can compress nearby nerves, resulting in symptoms such as tingling, numbness, or weakness in the limbs. Pain along the spine can also occur as a result of a pinched nerve.
- Sciatica, characterised by pain radiating down one or both legs, is also a common manifestation.
Understanding the underlying causes of disc degeneration is essential for addressing the condition effectively. That being said, some of the primary factors contributing to disc degeneration include:
- The natural aging process, which is a significant contributor to disc degeneration. Over time, the discs lose water content and become less flexible, making them prone to damage.
- Genetic factors can predispose certain individuals to disc degeneration. If you have a family history of spinal issues, you may be at a higher risk yourself.
- Certain lifestyle choices can accelerate disc degeneration. Some examples of such habits include smoking, poor nutrition, and inadequate physical activity. Smoking, in particular, reduces blood flow to the spine and inhibits the discs’ ability to heal.
- Occupational hazards, for example in jobs that involve heavy lifting, repetitive bending, or prolonged sitting. These can increase the risk of disc degeneration.
- Previous spinal injuries or trauma can contribute to the development of disc degeneration later in life.
What degenerative disc disease treatment options are available?
While disc degeneration is a natural part of aging and cannot be reversed, there are proactive steps you can take to minimise its impact on your spine. You may find one or more of the following to help alleviate the pain and other uncomfortable symptoms that occur:
- Stay active and engage in regular physical activity to strengthen the muscles supporting your spine. Activities like swimming, yoga, and core-strengthening exercises can be particularly beneficial.
- Maintain a healthy diet. A balanced diet rich in nutrients like calcium and vitamin D supports bone and disc health. Consider adding dairy products, leafy greens, and fatty fish to your diet.
- If you smoke, quitting can significantly reduce your risk of disc degeneration. Smoking cessation improves blood flow to the spine, aiding in disc repair.
- Use proper lifting techniques to avoid straining your spine, whether at work or during daily activities. Bend your knees, keep the object close to your body, and use your legs to lift.
- If you have a desk job, ensure your workspace is ergonomically designed to promote good posture and reduce strain on your spine.
- Decompress your spine with a device like the Backrack to restore the natural space between the vertebrae that was lost due to degeneration of spinal discs.