What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

What causes degenerative disc disease?

Congratulations! You have degenerative disc disease! This may not be a pronouncement that makes you feel like throwing yourself a party, but it does mean that you have managed to survive long enough to experience this condition. Degeneration of the discs that make up the spinal column is just another of the less-appreciated aspects of aging. It is entirely natural and will happen to everyone lucky enough to live long enough. That said, while the degeneration, which means deterioration, is universal, experiencing pain as a part of the process is not. When there is pain, this spinal condition is called degenerative disc disease, or DDD.

“Disease” is a difficult word to define and a dozen different dictionaries and reference sources will likely give you definitions that all include variations of some sort. Degenerative disc condition might have been a better label, but there would have been the loss of that clever alliteration. Nomenclature aside, this condition describes a spinal disc or discs that have degenerated to the degree that the individual is now experiencing pain.  Chronic, often low-level pain that may flare in bouts of more severe pain, is the hallmark of degenerative disc disease.

The ability of the body to move, twist, turn and bend is all due to the design of the spinal column. An integral part of that design is the series of spinal discs that maintain our flexibility by absorbing the shocks produced by all of those movements. Located between the bones of the spine that are called vertebrae, the discs keep the vertebrae from being damaged by rubbing together. These little shock absorbers are made of two parts; the annulus fibrosus and the nucleus pulposus.

Annulus fibrosus – an outer ring of fibrous tissue, mainly consisting of collagen, that surrounds the nucleus pulposus. The nerves are located in this outer layer.

Nucleus pulposus – the inner core, protected by the annulus fibrosus, is mainly a watery gel-like substance and fibers made of collagen that provide the cushion-like support and structure. Within this core area are proteins that can cause pain and swelling to any tissue they come in contact with if they escape the nucleus pulposus due to injury or disc degeneration.

Degenerative Disc Disease Causes

  • Aging – babies are born with spinal discs that consist of mostly water, roughly 80 percent. From then on, the older we get, the lower the concentration of water. As the disc dries out, it loses its ability to absorb shock.
  • Cumulative movements – everyday activities, work related tasks, recreational pursuits and sports can all contribute to tears in the outer layer of the disc. Typically, anyone that has reached age 60 will have some disc degeneration, although this does not mean that they will experience any noticeable back pain.
  • Trauma – accidents and injuries can also result in damage to the disc, either through impact or contributing to arthritis settling into the area.
  • Genetics and smoking – two other powerful factors demonstrated to contribute to the likelihood of more pronounced disc degeneration.

Compared to tissue in other parts of the body, the spinal discs receive a very limited supply of blood. This impacts their ability for repair, which means that the degeneration will continue with no chance of self-healing. The level of pain and incapacity created by the degeneration of the discs will likely fluctuate with time, and it is important to make an appointment with your healthcare professional for treatment and pain management recommendations.

At Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine, our physicians are committed to more than just treating your symptoms. We strongly believe that each individual is best served through an integrative treatment plan. We focus on finding the underlying cause and providing non-surgical, evidenced based solutions tailored to your specific condition and needs. If you are experiencing back pain or have questions about any other condition or service, we invite you to schedule a consultation by using our convenient online form by clicking here.