The actual definition of DDD is hard to pinpoint as it encompasses a number of processes occurring in your spine, some of which are harmful and some of which are part of the normal wear-and-tear of aging.
To understand DDD, one must first understand what a disc does. The discs are shock absorbing structures that fit in between the bony vertebrae of the spine. They act as shock absorbers which contribute to the normal motion and structural support of the spine. Think of the disc as a thick sponge contained within a hard ligamentous shell. As we age, our discs develop tears and begin to dehydrate. This is not necessarily a painful condition, but it may contribute to low back pain and even nerve impingement as the disc becomes more susceptible to injury. In fact, one out of three people will show signs of disc degeneration on MRI by the time they are 30 years old, and two out of three will show signs by age 60!
A person is typically given the diagnosis of DDD when clinical symptoms develop. This can take different forms, but most commonly leads to back or leg pain or a combination of the two. Low back pain from DDD is multifactorial and is commonly attributed to increased stress on the spine as well as the muscles and ligaments supporting it. It is likely that there are internal pain generators in the disc itself that are activated by the aging disc but this has yet to be proven. As the disease progresses, it can lead to disc herniations and narrowing of the spine which can result in pinched nerves and leg pain.
In addition to normal aging, DDD can also be brought about by injuries to the spine, lack of core strength, poor posture, obesity, and smoking.
Fortunately, besides aging of course, the other causes are in large part preventable by living an active, healthy lifestyle! This can help reverse the effects of DDD and ideally prevent it from occurring in the first place.
The really good news is the vast majority of patients with DDD can be treated with conservative, non-operative measures!
If you or someone you know is suffering from symptoms of DDD, see your spine specialist to learn about treatment options.
Written by Dr. Michael Musacchio, Jr.
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