This condition is a weakening of one or more of the vertebral discs. There is a disc between each of the vertebra of your spine.
The invertebral discs are designed to absorb pressure and keep the spine flexible by acting as a cushion during body movement. The discs are similar to shock absorbers. Without the cushioning effect of the disc, the vertebrae in your spine would not be able to absorb stress or provide the movement needed to bend or twist. Just as bones cannot sustain high stress repeatedly without being damaged – so much of the mechanical stress of everyday movement is transferred to the disc.
A healthy invertebral disc has a great deal of water in the nucleus – the centre portion of the disc. The water content gives the nucleus a spongy quality and it allows it to absorb the spinal stress.
Excessive pressure or injuries to the disc can cause injury to the other ring of tough ligament material that holds the vertebrae together – know as the annulus. Small tears show up in the ligament material of the annulus – which in turn heals by scar tissue.
The scar tissue is not as strong as the normal ligament tissue. Over time, as more scar tissue forms so the annulus becomes weaker. Eventually this leads to damage to the nucleus – which begins to lose its water content and dry up. As the nucleus loses its water content it collapses, allowing the two vertebrae above and below to move closer to one another.
This results in a narrowing of the disc space between the two vertebrae. As this shift occurs the facet joints, which are located at the back of the spine are forced to shift and this can cause additional problems too.
Almost everyone’s discs dehydrate and degenerate with age.
In many people, degeneration is not painful. However, in some people the process is very painful. Usually a small trauma to a degenerate disc sets up an inflammatory response which begins the cycle of pain. The most common early symptom of degenerative disc disease is usually pain in the back that spreads to the buttocks and upper thighs. Some people also experience numbness or tingling in the legs. The pain tends to come and go. Bending, twisting and sitting may make the pain worse – however, lying down relieves the pressure on the spine.
When referring to degenerative disc disease, health care professionals are usually referring to a combination of problems in the spine that ‘start’ with damage to the disc but eventually begin to affect all parts of the spine.
A variety of treatment options exist for back pain that results in degeneration – ‘wear and tear’ – on parts of the spine.
In most cases, simple therapies such as mild pain medication and rest are effective. The goal of treatment is to make you feel comfortable, reduce further degeneration and get you back to normal as quickly as possible. As a last resort, and only if other conservative treatments fail, Surgery – such as an interbody fusion or disc replacement may be considered.