If you’ve been told you have the condition known as degenerative disc disease, you’re not alone.
In fact, sooner or later most of us will get it—because it’s not really a disease. It’s simply the normal process of spinal discs degenerating as we age.
Why the spinal structure degenerates
The spinal discs are cushioning pads that sit between the vertebrae bones of the spine. They protect the bones from impact and also allow flexible movement of the spine. They have a tough outer structure with a moisture-rich, gel-like center.
When we’re young, the walls of the discs are supported by the fluid-filled interior part of the disc. But as we age, the center of the discs can become desiccated, or lose moisture, which reduces the necessary pressure on the disc walls. By this process, the disc starts to bulge and collapse. It has less strength, and is more likely to deform when subjected to forces.
As the discs compress, the shifting vertebrae can start to put pressure on the nerve roots that exit the spinal sac at each vertebra level. This nerve pinching can cause radiating pain along the path of the nerve. When this occurs to the sciatic nerve in the lower back, it causes the radiating leg pain known as sciatica.
The destabilized vertebrae can also cause increased movement and friction in the facet joints, where each vertebra meet. This speeds up the joint degeneration and triggers facet joint osteoarthritis.
Symptoms of degeneration can be treated
This is an almost universal process by which the joints of the spine degenerate. But the good news is degeneration progresses so slowly that it may not cause any symptoms for some people. And for others, the joints are in fact degenerating, but it doesn’t trigger pain. Experts are still trying to understand the link between joint degeneration and pain.
Even for those who are experiencing the pain of spinal degeneration, there are many treatment options that can ease pain and other symptoms. These include medications, exercises and stretches, physical therapy, injections, and even surgery in severe cases.
Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing back or neck pain that lasts more than a few weeks and is disrupting your day-to-day life.