Being diagnosed with degenerative disc disease can sound alarming. It is a common condition that affects most adults older than the age of 50. Simply stated, degenerative disc disease (DDD) is characterized by the ongoing deterioration of the discs of the spine, often due to genetic factors, age, and lifestyle changes. Degenerative disc disease is often referred to as spondylosis, which is an umbrella term for age-related spinal degeneration. If you’ve been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, take a moment to research what causes this condition and the treatment options available to you, so you can take a step toward pain relief. The cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spine are composed of a gelatinous core (called the nucleus pulposus) and exterior cartilage shell (called the annulus fibrosus). As people age, the cartilage in these discs weakens and their water and protein content slowly decreases. With all the pressure placed upon the discs, they are susceptible to wear and tear – and the potential for damage only increases over time. The two most common areas of the spine to see disc degeneration are the neck (cervical degenerative disc disease) and the lower back (lumbar degenerative disc disease) due to their constant range of motion and weight-bearing properties. As the discs wear down, they shrink, resulting in a reduction in the normal space between vertebrae. The smaller disc space can be visualized through X-ray imaging or MRI scans, allowing for an accurate diagnosis of the condition commonly called degenerative disc disease. Degeneration of disc tissue makes a disc more susceptible to herniation and can cause local pain in the affected area as well as pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness into the extremities. Cervical disc disease can cause local symptoms often in the form of a stiff or painful neck extending to the upper shoulders and can even cause headaches. As the discs in the spine shrink further, the reduced space between the vertebrae can lead to the impingement of nerve roots that reside within those spaces. In the neck, these nerve roots branch out into the upper extremities resulting in a “pinch” that may register the sensation of pain, as well as muscle weakness, tingling, and numbness in the areas innervated by an affected root. The greater the degree of “impingement”, the further into the extremity the symptoms often travel. The prevalence of numbness, tingling, and weakness is also greater with greater degrees of neural compromise. Thoracic spinal deterioration is rare is said to account for slightly less than 2% of all spinal disorders. Lumbar degenerative disc disease is the most common variety of DDD and is responsible for local lower back pain and stiffness. In more advanced cases, pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness can extend progressively further into the buttock and lower extremity. Most severe cases reach to the foot and toes. Sciatica is the term commonly applied to pain resulting from a pinched lumbar nerve root. Regardless of which spinal level is effected, advanced DDD can result in spinal cord compression and present with global, poorly localized radiating of symptoms in the extremities as well as the torso. Loss of balance / instability, numbness / tingling in the region of the genitals (saddle anesthesia or saddle dysthesia), as well as alterations in normal bowel and bladder function can result.
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