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If I have Degenerative Disc Disease, what are my risks?

Do you have a stiff back when you get out of bed in the morning? Sharp pain when you try to stand up? Do you feel a dull ache when you bend at the waist, or occasional “pins and needles” in your arms and legs?

For most of us, at some point, the answer to all of these questions will be “yes.” And, because these aches and pains tend to be so common, they seem “normal,” so you’re quick to dismiss them. And that’s where the trouble begins. These symptoms could be a sign of overtaxed muscles, an old mattress, or an uncomfortable couch… or the pain and weakness you feel could be symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease, a common, but potentially debilitating spinal condition.

Why you shouldn’t ignore your symptoms

Because the back pain, stiffness, and weakness caused by Degenerative Disc Disease can vary so much in intensity, duration, and frequency, it can be tough to know if your symptoms are caused by this disease or other conditions that may heal on their own. With a degenerating disc, you may feel anything from sporadic irritation to chronic intense pain.

Do not dismiss these symptoms. They may be common, but they are not “normal.” See a doctor, so you can get a definitive diagnosis. It may just be a strained muscle, but, if it is a degenerative disease, the sooner you catch it the better your treatment options and prognosis will be. To understand why, let’s look at what Degenerative Disc Disease is, related symptoms, risk factors, and what we can do to help reduce or eliminate the pain.

Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

Each of your spinal vertebrae is separated and protected by fibrocartilaginous discs that act as shock absorbers for the spine and protect the spinal cord and nerve roots. Picture a jelly donut with a pliable, Kevlar-like outer shell (the annulus). This outer layer is filled with a fibrous, jelly-like material, the pulposus. Injury, as well as wear and tear over time, can damage the annulus, causing tiny tears that, even when healed, leave scar tissue that weakens the structure and resiliency of the annulus.

These tears allow t[3] he fluid in the disc to leak out, weakening the disc and sometimes leading to disc collapse. When this happens, it puts pressure on spinal nerves, leading to pain, weakness, and other symptoms. These symptoms can lead to severe, chronic pain. The process often follows this pattern:

● Time and use or injury tears small holes in the disc wall

● Scarring leads to weakening of the disc wall

● Weakening leads to further tearing

● Poorly healed tears allow fluid and pulposus to leak out of the annulus

● The disc collapses, causing the vertebrae to slide closer together

● Pressure on spinal nerves cause pain and numbness

● Cartilage between the disc and the vertebrae begins to erode, hindering the flow of oxygen and nutrients to and from the disc

● Vertebrae may twist and scrape, leading to further damage

● Bone spurs develop, causing additional pain

● Pressure on spinal nerves and nerve roots leads to radiating pain and numbness in the extremities

This process can also lead to additional spine-related conditions, including Osteoarthritis, Herniated Disc Disease, or Spinal Stenosis, which can lead to chronic, debilitating pain and weakness. Each of these conditions can be progressive, meaning they may get worse over time, which is why early detection and treatment is your best option.

Initial indicators of disc degeneration include lower back pain, as well as sharp pain in the hips, buttocks, neck, and shoulders. One of the most common indicators of Degenerative Disc Disease is a continual ache near the disc, punctuated by sharp, sporadic pains. This pain may decrease when you’re walking, moving, or lying down.

These symptoms can lead to other types of pain including chronic, disabling pain or numbness in the back and extremities. These symptoms may increase in intensity when sitting, or when you bend, twist, or lift heavy objects. You may feel your back “give out,” as if it cannot support your weight.

Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Developing Degenerative Disc Disease

While the symptoms related to Degenerative Disc Disease may vary in intensity, frequency, and duration, there are several factors which may increase your risk.

● Lack of regular stretching or exercise weakens your muscles, increasing the load on your vertebrae and spinal discs

● Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption contributes to medical issues that increase your risk

● Obesity and lack of regular exercise also contribute to the onset and progression of the condition

Making a few, better lifestyle choices will not only improve your health but also significantly decrease your risk of developing a degenerative disc or causing the condition to progress.

Staying well hydrated is one of the best ways to protect your spine from disc degeneration. When you don’t get enough water, your cartilage becomes drier and spinal discs shrink, so drink plenty of water to make sure your body has enough to keep your discs in good working order.

If you are overweight, losing just a few pounds and maintaining a healthy weight can dramatically increase your health and decrease your risk of spinal degeneration.