After age 40, most people experience some level of spinal degeneration, which is when the cushioning that’s in your spine starts to wear away. There are treatment options available to help with pain and mobility, which requires finding a specialized spine surgeon in many cases.
Below are more details about degenerative disk disease and what to know about the condition.
When your spinal disks wear down, it’s known as degenerative disk disease. These disks are the rubbery cushions that are between the bones in your spinal column, known as vertebrae. They are like shock absorbers, and they help you move, twist, and bend.
It’s a normal part of aging for your disks to degenerate gradually over time, but as the cushioning wears away, the bones might rub together, which can cause pain.
Other conditions associated with the cushion wearing away include adult scoliosis, herniated disks, and spinal stenosis.
Almost everyone has disk degeneration to some extent after 40, but it doesn’t usually lead to symptoms. Around 5% of people will experience pain.
While the disease is most common in older people, factors that can increase the risk of developing it include acute injuries, obesity, smoking, and working a physical job. Women are more likely to experience symptoms than men.
The symptoms that are most common with degenerative disk disease are back and neck pain. The pain might come and go, and it can last for weeks or even months at a time. You may experience numbness or tingling in your arms and legs, and the pain or tingling might radiate down your lower back and buttocks. The pain is likely worse when you’re lifting, bending, or sitting.
You’re more likely to experience pain if your disks dry out. Disks have a core that contains water, and as you get older, the core will naturally lose water, and then the disks get thinner, so there’s less shock absorption.
If you have cracks or tears in your spinal disks because of minor injuries, you may also be more likely to have pain and symptoms.
Degenerative disk pain can be mild to severe, and it can start and stop or get worse over time or with certain actions.
If a person has advanced degenerative disk disease, it can lead to osteoarthritis or OA of the back. If OA develops, it can significantly limit function in your daily life. When you have decreased mobility because of back pain, complications such as blood clots in the leg, reduced muscle tone, and worsening pain can occur.
How Is It Diagnosed?
A healthcare provider will start the process of diagnosing degenerative disk disease by asking you about your symptoms.
They can use imaging scans to show what your disks look like.
A physical exam might also include tests for nerve function, pain levels, and strength tests.
A healthcare provider, after making a diagnosis, might recommend that you try noninvasive treatment options first.
This could include physical therapy, where you work with a healthcare provider on exercises to promote strength and mobility. Your doctor could recommend pain medications, muscle relaxers, or steroids, or you could get steroid injections near your spinal nerves or your disks.
Another noninvasive treatment option is called radiofrequency neurotomy, where electrical currents are used to burn sensory nerves. This procedure prevents pain signals from traveling to your brain.
There are things you can do at home if you have pain, too, although they’re not long-term treatments.
At-home options include low-impact exercise, like walking and swimming, and hot and cold therapy. Yoga and gentle stretching may also alleviate pain if you’re experiencing it.
What About Surgery?
A lot of patients with degenerative disk disease don’t need surgery, but some do.
If you’ve tried nonsurgical treatments and you’re continuing to experience weakness or pain, your doctor might recommend surgery.
There are a few approaches, including a spinal fusion, where a surgeon will connect two or more vertebrae with the goal of improving stability.
There’s also an artificial disk replacement, which is a procedure requiring less recovery time than a spinal fusion.
If you believe you’re experiencing symptoms of degenerative disk disease, you should speak to your healthcare provider. Without therapy or treatment, it can progress, causing more and worsening symptoms. Surgery is one option, but your doctor can also explore non-invasive solutions with you.
Your spinal disks aren’t going to repair themselves, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in pain or see your quality of life reduced.