Between each of the 24 bones (vertebrae) in the back that make up the spine sits a spinal disc, a rubbery, fluid-filled structure serves as a shock absorber and cushions the spinal bones and nerves. In a healthy spine, these discs help us to stand tall and to bend, flex, and twist easily and without pain. As is the case with most of the structures and organs in the body, as we age the discs in our back slowly degenerate and might eventually shrink and lose elasticity. Once this condition has occurred, it’s known as degenerative disc disease. The name is a bit misleading, because it’s not really a disease, it’s simply a normal part of the aging process.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF DEGENERATIVE DISC DISEASE
While discs in the back will slowly deteriorate over time, not everyone will develop symptoms. Those who do will experience symptoms that range from mild to severe. The discs in the neck and lower back are most commonly affected by degenerative disc disease. If you experience the following symptoms, you should be evaluated by a spine specialist to determine if you have degenerative disc disease.
- Pain affecting the lower back, buttocks, and thighs
- Numb or tingly fingers and toes
- Weak leg or foot muscles
- Pain radiating from the neck out to the arms and fingers
- Back pain that becomes worse when you bend, lift, or twist
- Pain that goes away when you walk, move, or lie down
- Bouts of severe pain that comes and goes over a period of days or months
- Pain that flares up when you’re sitting down
- Pain that gets worse when you’re performing a certain activity, but goes away when you stop
DEGENERATIVE DISC DISEASE IS TREATABLE – OFTEN WITHOUT SURGERY
If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, a back specialist will be able to determine if you have degenerative disc disease. If diagnosed, most patients are able to achieve significant pain relief with conservative, non-surgical treatment options. In severe cases, a spine surgeon may suggest lumbar spine fusion surgery.
BACK PAIN TREATMENT FOR PATIENTS WITH DEGENERATIVE DISC DISEASE
The top priority your back pain specialist will have when treating degenerative disc disease is to reduce pain enough that you can begin to exercise and participate in rehabilitation activities. Usually, spine doctors prescribe medications that may include acetaminophen, oral steroids, muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatories. Your doctor will review your medical history and any other medications you’re taking before prescribing pain-control medications.
EXERCISE IS ESSENTIAL FOR PAIN RELIEF
Medication masks the symptoms of pain, but exercise and rehabilitation are essential to long-term pain relief. The goals of exercise and rehabilitation are to increase the strength and flexibility of the muscles that surround and support your back; increase blood flow to the joints and muscles in your spine; and promote the release of “feel-good” endorphins that boost mood and reduce pain, naturally.
Your back pain specialist will customize an exercise program designed to be safe and effective for you. Programs usually include stretching and aerobic conditioning, and are supervised by physical therapist who will ensure you’re using correct form and technique so you don’t injure yourself.
LIFESTYLE CHANGES CAN REDUCE BACK PAIN AND INCREASE OVERALL HEALTH AND WELLBEING
In addition to following your spine doctor’s orders, there are steps you can take on your own to reduce stress on your back and reduce pain. These include:
- Practicing proper lifting techniques
- Taking frequent standing breaks when you must sit for long periods of time
- Switching to ergonomic furniture
- Switching to supportive shoes
- Losing weight if you are overweight
- Stopping smoking, if you smoke
- Reduce your alcohol intake, if you drink
- Making sure to drink plenty of water everyday
Taking the steps above will help reduce the likelihood you’ll experience back pain. And, as a bonus, they will benefit your health in ways that go far beyond reducing back pain!
Degenerative disc disease sounds scary, but it’s actually quite common and usually very manageable. If you’re in the South Houston area including Pearland, Bellaire, Clear Lake or Lake Jackson and would like to be evaluated for this condition, contact the spine specialists at the Spine Institute of Southeast Texas.