To understand what a degenerative disc means it is helpful to study how the spine works, or at least how it looks like as well as its parts.
The spinal column, commonly known as spine, is made up of bones called vertebrae. Between each vertebra is a disc that looks like a gel, which serves as a shock absorber, keeping the vertebrae from rubbing together. These discs have a soft center (nucleus), and a tough outer wall called annulus. They are made up of 80% water. However, as people age, the water slowly decreases, and with it, the disc also lose their ability to act as shock absorbers.
How Does It Occur?
Degenerative disc disease, also called as spondylosis is a general term used to describe the changes that can occur on any area of the spine. It commonly occurs in the lumbar area or lower back. It is no actually a disease but a condition where the cushion (discs) degenerates as people age. Some of the changes that can occur are:
- Tearing of the outer layer of the discs (annulus)
– There are some cases where the center (nucleus) comes through its outer layer through a tear in the wall. This event can lead to the activation of the inflammatory process that can inflamed the nerves near the area and cause terrible pain. These tears also affect the nerves in the annulus causing pain even in small movements. Over the years, the discs might dry up as well and the discs become stiffer.
- Drying out and shrinking of the discs
– As previously mentioned, as people get older, the discs lose water slowly, which results into loss of flexibility of the spine. This is also one of the reasons why people become shorter as we age.
- Growing of abnormal bone
– Without the disc supporting the vertebrae, they rub on each other and cause bone spurs.
What Are The Symptoms?
Although the symptoms of degenerative disease varies from person to person, the following symptoms may or may not occur for a person who has it:
- Pain that usually begins in the lower back and maybe felt on the buttocks or both legs
- Burning or pressing sensation at the back
- Numbness or tingling on legs or feet
- Weakness on leg muscles
How Is A Diagnosis Made?
If you think your back pain is possible a degenerative disc disease, consult a specialist. Your doctor will take a complete medical history as well as a thorough assessment. He or she will determine if there are any lifestyle habits that are causing the pain. Back pain is not automatically diagnosed as Degenerative Disc disease, and there are lots of spine disorders out there.
After the initial assessment, you might be advised to get an imaging study, possibly an x-ray, or an MRI scan. Your doctor might order a discogram or CT scan to identify a tumor, herniated or bulging discs, or other conditions that compresses the nerve roots which causes your back pains.
The diagnostic results will confirm the diagnosis needed to determine the appropriate treatment.
Jandial, R., Aryan, H. E., & ial, R. (2008). 100 questions and answers about spine disorders. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Sayler, M. H., & Shamie, A. N. (2007). The encyclopedia of the back and spine systems and disorders. New York, NY: Facts on File Inc, United States.