close icon



News & Insights

Degenerative disc disease diagnosis and treatment

How to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease: Cause & More

Mar 30, 2023

Your spine consists of hard and soft parts. The hard parts are the bone components of the spine called vertebrae. Between vertebrae, you have rubbery tissue known as spinal discs. Their job is to absorb shock and provide your spine with the necessary flexibility.

When these discs get worn out, you develop a condition known as degenerative disc disease. Before we continue, you need to understand that this isn’t exactly a disease but more of a condition.

Here’s what you need to know about this condition and degenerative disc disease treatment.

What are the causes of degenerative disc disease?

Three things are known to cause degenerative disc disease.

  • The drying of the disc. This is something that happens with age. When we are born, the disc is 80% water. The percentage decreases as we grow old. Now, the dryer it gets, the less shock-absorbent it becomes and more likely to crack and split.
  • Daily activities wear out the disc. While this is normal at a young age, for people in their 60s, the signs are more than notable. By the 7th decade of our lives, we’ll all have various degrees of disc degeneration.
  • Lastly, an injury can be a cause of degenerative disc disease. In other words, disc degeneration is caused by age, overuse, and injury.

What are degenerative disc disease stages?

There are four stages of degenerative disc disease.

  • Stage 1: The dysfunction stage
  • Stage 2: The dehydration stage
  • Stage 3: Stabilization stage
  • Stage 4: Collapsing stage

Each subsequent stage is more painful and harder to ignore. The speed at which you’ll progress through these four stages is hard to predict. The progress will be quicker if the patient is older and has previous spine injuries.

If ignored long enough, the spine may develop arthritis and even become deformed leading to degenerative scoliosis.

If ignored for long enough, the spine's bones will begin to fuse, resulting in a complete loss of posture and mobility. In other words, the result will be permanent spinal deformity. In some cases, degenerative disc disease can cause degenerative scoliosis. In other words, this condition will not go away if you ignore it long enough.

What are the symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

The first symptom of degenerative disc disease is back pain that worsens when sitting, bending, twisting, or lifting. To make matters worse, these are the types of movements that you repeat regularly.

If you feel better while running or walking than sitting or standing, this could also be an indicator.

Numbness in extremities or weakness in the leg muscles can indicate damage to the nerve root because the broken disc is pushing on it.   

Still, the best way to diagnose degenerative disc disease is to see a spinal doctor and have them examine you.

What are some things to avoid with degenerative disc disease?

There are a few things you should avoid with degenerative disc disease. For instance, heavy lifting and twisting are generally seen as unsafe. Therefore, you might want to slow down or avoid them entirely.

What are your degenerative disc disease treatment options?

When treating degenerative disc conditions, you have several non-surgical options to consider.

  • Physical therapy: A string of special exercises can alleviate pain and strengthen the muscles surrounding your spine. This way, you’ll experience less pain and maintain a higher level of mobility. Exercises like pelvic tilts, knee-chest stretch, and trunk rotation can make a difference. 
  • Medication: Since pain is one of the biggest problems, over-the-counter medicine for low back pain is often used for degenerative disc disease treatment. Acetaminophen and NSAIDs are often used. Then, you may want to explore prescription medication like oral steroids, muscle relaxants, and Tramadol.
  • Losing weight: Because your discs absorb shock, the more you weigh, the more stress they must endure. So, it’s only logical that losing some weight makes things easier to handle.
  • Steroid injection: If you fail nonoperative modalities and the MRI shows a notable compression of a nerve from a herniated disc, you may be a candidate for a steroid injection. The steroid would decrease the size of the disc, by decreasing the inflammation, which could decompress and free up the pinched nerve.

If all of this fails, you can always consider the surgery.

Degenerative disc disease treatment through surgery

Several surgical procedures might help with degenerative disk disease. These are only used if there’s no response to medication. The most common three surgery types are:

  • Discectomy: Part of the disc which is herniated is removed to decompress the pinched nerve. There are two types – cervical and lumbar. The recovery can be short. It will sometimes take four to six weeks to return to all your usual activities. Most people return home on the day of the surgery; however, some patients stay one or more days for observation.
  • Artificial disc replacement: This surgery is usually recommended for people younger than 65 because it gives the best long-term results. While doctors usually recommend an overnight stay, recovery is not long. You will probably be able to walk in a day, and your spine will fully heal in a few months.
  • Spinal fusion: if the disc has slipped, doctors may recommend spinal fusion with discectomy. This can be done with both the spine in your neck and in your lower back. After this surgery, you will probably be monitored for about 24 hours before release. However you may also require many days of therapy in the hospital and even long-term rehabilitation after you are released.

The type of surgery will heavily depend on the degenerative changes in the spine. This is why you need a doctor’s opinion as soon as possible.

Wrap up

About 30% of people will show evidence of degenerative disc disease before age 35. By the age of 60, this number will grow to 90%. In other words, it’s not a question you will develop; it’s to what degree and at what point. Fortunately, with the right medical care, many options for approaching degenerative disc disease treatment correctly exist.

If you have any concerns, you should visit one of our spinal specialists for more information about treating your degenerative disc disease.

This article was reviewed and approved by an orthopedic surgeon as we place a high premium on accuracy for our patients and potential patients.