Growing older can’t be avoided, however we can educate ourselves and arm ourselves with the best strategies to help slow down the effects of aging and preserve our bodies. One of the many age-related changes that the human body can undergo is degenerative disc disease.
Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a condition characterized by the wearing down, cracking, or tearing of the discs in-between the vertebrae. These discs act as a cushion in-between the bones in the back. They are filled with a gel-like substance. The vertebrae are the 33 bones that make up the spine. The degenerative aspect of DDD speaks to the gradual deterioration or breakdown of these spinal discs. This condition is very common with over 40% of people over the age of 40 having degenerative disc disease. This number doubles by age 80, with 80% or more people having DDD by age 80. Risk factors of DDD include growing older and genetics. This condition can be asymptomatic, and it is not always painful.
The main causes of DDD are:
- Growing older. The discs dry out over time. DDD is usually an age-related change.
- Tears in the disc due to daily participation in sports or other high-impact activities.
- Injury to the back.
- Years of manual labor.
The main symptoms of DDD are
- Pain that ranges from mild to severe. The pain can also affect the neck and the lower back. Furthermore, the pain can radiate to the arms, legs, buttocks, and hands. This pain can also be off and on.
- Weakness to the legs
- Pain that worsens when sitting or standing.
Degenerative disc disease is diagnosed by a health care provider. Your clinician will take your medical history and perform a physical exam. During the exam, they will assess the back for pain, swelling, and tenderness. If DDD is suspected, the clinician may request an X-ray, MRI, or a CT scan. These scans all show different things. The X-ray shows an image of the bones only. The MRI can visualize the discs, nerves, and spine. It can also show the spaces in between the discs. The CT scan gives detailed images of bony structures; the CT scan is good for people with metal implants.
Treatment of DDD includes both conservative and non-conservative measures. The conservative measures include topical gels and ointments, treatment from a TENS machine, medication, steroid injections, and physical therapy. Physical therapy is used to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles. It is also used to reduce pain and correct any imbalances. Certified kinesiotaping practitioners can also use kinesiotape to relieve pain and improve circulation.
DDD can also be treated surgically. Spinal fusion surgery can be done to improve the condition of the discs. Artificial disc replacements can also be done to relieve any pain associated with DDD. Surgical methods are used when conservative methods do not provide enough relief.
Lastly, here are some tips on ways to handle DDD:
- Use a hot or cold pack. A hot or cold compress can be used to relieve pain. Heat can help improve circulation. When using these compresses be sure to put a protective layer between your skin and the compress, such as a towel or pillowcase.
- Participate in gentle back and core exercises. These will increase your core strength, to support the spine and decrease the pain in the back.
- Modify aggravating activities. Modify your activities to ones that are less stressful on your back. For example, break up cooking sessions. One day, prep all your ingredients and cut up all your vegetables. The next day you can use the ingredients you prepped to cook the meal.
- Maintain an appropriate weight. Being overweight also puts more strain on the back as it is a weight-bearing joint. By losing weight and maintaining a healthy BMI you can reduce the load on the back and reduce the pain associated with DDD.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking constricts the blood vessels and prevents the proper circulation of nutrients throughout the body, including vertebral discs.
Even though we can’t stop the aging process, we can take action so that we can at least age gracefully, minus so many aches and pains.
If you need help aging with grace, feel free to reach out to us on IG @adderleyphysio.