What is degenerative disc disease?
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Washington University spinal neurosurgeons routinely treat all types of degenerative disc disease including:
- Neck (cervical degenerative disc disease)
- Mid-back (thoracic degenerative disc disease)
- Low back (lumbar degenerative disc disease)
A full range of treatment options is available, including non-surgical options and surgical repair.
The spine is made up of several segments:
- Cervical spine (7 bones in the neck)
- Thoracic spine (12 bones in the mid-back, each with a rib attached)
- Lumbar spine (5 bones in the low back)
- Sacrum (tailbone)
The bones in the top three segments (cervical, thoracic and lumbar) are all separated by discs, which act as cushions or shock absorbers between the bones. The discs, composed of a thick outer band (fibrous annulus) and softer inner cushion (nucleus pulposus), help absorb energy in the spine and also help in movement. The sacrum is normally fused together, without remaining discs.
With time, discs can wear down, or degenerate. This happens naturally in the process of aging, but can also happen prematurely because of various factors, such as trauma (car accidents, falls), repetitive injury from certain occupations or sports, or even genetic factors.When discs degenerate, they can rupture, or herniate against the nerves in the spine, or they can shrink in size, providing less cushion between the bones, thereby causing pain.
Degenerative disc disease treatments
Most degenerative discs result in minimal symptoms such as backache or neck ache. Often this is treated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, heat packs, massage and stretching. When the pain becomes more severe and over-the-counter medications don’t ease the pain, your primary care physician will often prescribe physical therapy and/or injections.
Fortunately, most degenerative discs do not need surgical treatment. However, if the disc is causing arm or leg pain, numbness or weakness, you should see a spine physician. If the degenerative disc disease results in instability of the spine or significant compression of the nerves or spinal cord, surgery may be necessary.
Our spinal neurosurgeons can discuss your condition with you and offer various surgical options for degenerative disc disease.