Degeneration of the disc is medically referred to as spondylosis. Spondylosis can be noted on X-ray tests or MRI scanning of the spine as a narrowing of the normal “disc space” between the adjacent vertebrae.
As we age, the water and protein content of the cartilage of the body changes. This change results in weaker, more fragile, and thin cartilage. Because both the discs and the joints that stack the vertebrae (facet joints) are partly composed of cartilage, these areas are subject to wear and tear over time (degenerative changes). The gradual deterioration of the disc between the vertebrae is referred to as degenerative disc disease, sometimes abbreviated DDD. Wear of the facet cartilage and the bony changes of the adjacent joint is referred to as degenerative facet joint disease orosteoarthritis of the spine. Trauma injury to the spine can also lead to degenerative disc disease.
Whenever possible, doctors prefer treatment other than surgery. The first goal of nonsurgical treatment is to ease pain and other symptoms so the patient can resume normal activities as soon as possible.
Doctors rarely prescribe bed rest for patients with degenerative disc problems. Instead, patients are encouraged to do their normal activities using pain as a gauge for how much is too much. If symptoms are severe, a maximum of two days of bed rest may be prescribed.
Back braces are sometimes prescribed. Keeping the moving parts of the low back still can help calm mechanical pain. When a doctor issues a brace, he or she normally asks that the patient only wear it for two to four days. This lessens the chance that the trunk muscles will shrink (atrophy) from relying on the belt.
Patients may also be prescribed medication to help them gain control of their symptoms so they can resume normal activity swiftly.
If symptoms continue to limit a person’s ability to function normally, the doctor may suggest an epidural steroid injection (ESI). Steroids are powerful anti-inflammatories, meaning they help reduce pain and swelling. In an ESI, medication is injected into the space around the lumbar nerve roots. This area is called the epidural space. Some doctors inject only a steroid. Most doctors, however, combine a steroid with a long-lasting numbing medication. Generally, an ESI is given only when other treatments aren’t working. But ESIs are not always successful in relieving pain. If they do work, they often only provide temporary relief.
In addition, patients often work with a physical therapist. After evaluating a patient’s condition, the therapist can assign positions and exercises to ease symptoms. The therapist can design an exercise program to improve flexibility of tight muscles, to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles, and to help a patient move safely and with less pain.
People with degenerative disc problems tend to gradually improve over time. Most do not need surgery. In fact, only one to three percent of patients with degenerative disc problems typically require surgery.
Doctors prefer to try nonsurgical treatment for a minimum of three months before considering surgery. If, after this period, nonsurgical treatment hasn’t improved symptoms, the doctor may recommend surgery. The main types of surgery for degenerative disc problems include
• lumbar laminectomy