Approximately 40% of adults over age 40 have at least one degenerated vertebral disc. By age 80, 80% of them do.
Disc degeneration is considered a normal part of aging, just as skin wrinkles and gray hair are. Unlike wrinkles, however, discs that have lost volume and strength can cause an assortment of problems, including neck and back pain.
The experts at The Spine Center at the Bone and Joint Clinic of Baton Rouge in Baton Rouge, Walker, and Prairieville, Louisiana, encourage you to protect your spine’s health by becoming aware of degenerative disc disease (DDD) and the symptoms it can cause. Read below to find out if you already have DDD, how you can prevent it, how doctors treat it, and how one day it may be reversed.
Discs dry out and flatten
Normal, young, healthy vertebral discs are thick and spongy, with a tough exterior and gel-like center. Discs are sometimes referred to as resembling jelly doughnuts, but young discs are much more viscous and harder than doughnuts. Your discs lie in between each vertebral bone, separating them so they don’t grind against one another, causing pain and arthritis.
When your discs are in their prime, they absorb the shocks to your spine that occur when you walk, run, or jump. However, just as your pillow flattens out if you sleep on it for decades, your discs flatten with time, too. The constant pressure on your discs — combined with your body tissues’ natural tendency to dry out and lose volume over time — creates discs that are flatter, less resilient, and drier.
Flat, dry discs can rupture and press on sensitive nerves. They also don’t absorb shocks as well, which leave your vertebrae vulnerable to fractures. Signs that one or more of your discs has degenerated include:
- Chronic neck or back pain
- Sharp, stabbing, or burning pain
- Pain that radiates to your shoulders, arms, or hands
- Pain that radiates to your buttocks or leg
- Weak arms or legs
- More pain when you twist or bend your spine
- Feeling like your neck or back can’t support itself
- Increased pain when looking at a phone, sitting, or standing
- Pain that improves if you frequently change positions
- Decreased pain when lying down
Rarely, DDD can also cause bowel and bladder incontinence.
Protect your discs from degeneration
A healthy, active lifestyle doesn’t just protect you from conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, it protects your discs, too. Though you can’t prevent disc degeneration 100%, you can slow it down by adopting lifestyle choices such as:
- Developing strong core muscles to support your spine
- Getting daily exercise to keep your muscles oxygenated and strong
- Eating fresh vegetables, fruits, and good proteins and fats to nourish your discs
- Getting sufficient micronutrients, including vitamin K2, calcium, and magnesium
- Getting vitamin D from daily walks or supplements
- Staying hydrated with plenty of water
If you haven’t exercised in a while, talk to our doctors about how to start at your fitness level, and then gradually increase activities so you can improve your strength, flexibility, and balance.
Treating degenerative disc disease
A healthy lifestyle is helpful even after you’ve developed symptoms. If your doctor diagnoses you with DDD and you have minor pain, they may recommend over-the-counter medications to keep you comfortable.
However, if your pain or disability is severe, you may need surgery. At The Spine Center at the Bone and Joint Clinic of Baton Rouge, our surgeons perform either:
Your surgeon removes the diseased discs and replaces them with prosthetic discs.
Your surgeon removes the diseased discs and then fuses the vertebrae together, holding them in place with metal plates, screws, or rods. If only a few discs are fused, it may not impact the range of motion of your spine.
Making discs young again
You may have heard about regenerative medicine, which sports medicine doctors use to help athletes recover from injuries. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to do the same with DDD by using bone marrow aspirate concentrate (BMAC) to repair and rejuvenate damaged discs.
The team at The Spine Center at the Bone and Joint Clinic of Baton Rouge is currently enrolling patients with DDD who are between the ages of 18 and 60 years old into a clinical trial with BMAC. Not everyone is eligible for the study, so be sure to ask your doctor to provide you details to find out if you can participate.