Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back and neck pain, and also one of the most misunderstood.
Simply put, degenerative disc disease refers to symptoms of back or neck pain caused by wear-and-tear on a spinal disc. In some cases, degenerative disc disease also causes weakness, numbness, and hot, shooting pains in the arms or legs (radicular pain). Degenerative disc disease typically consists of a low-level chronic pain with intermittent episodes of more severe pain.
Symptoms of degenerative disc disease
Increased pain with activities that involve bending or twisting the spine, as well as lifting something heavy
A “giving out” sensation, caused by spinal instability, in which the neck or back feels as if it is unable to provide basic support, and may lock up and make movement feel difficult.
Muscle tension or muscle spasms, which are common effects of spinal instability. In some cases, a degenerated disc may cause no pain but muscle spasms are severely painful and temporarily debilitating.
Possible radiating pain that feels sharp, stabbing, or hot. In cases of cervical disc degeneration, this pain is felt in the shoulder, arm, or hand (called a cervical radiculopathy); in cases of lumbar disc degeneration, pain is felt in the hips, buttocks, or down the back of the leg (called a lumbar radiculopathy).
Increased pain when holding certain positions, such as sitting or standing for extended periods (exacerbating low back pain), or looking down too long at a cell phone or book (worsening neck pain).
Reduced pain when changing positions frequently, rather than remaining seated or standing for prolonged periods. Likewise, regularly stretching the neck can decrease cervical disc pain, and taking short, frequent walks during the day can decrease lumbar disc pain.
Ice or cold treatment. Applying ice or a cold pack to a painful area of the spine can relieve pain by reducing inflammation, which can be helpful following exercise or activity.
Heat therapy. Using heat from a heating pad, adhesive wrap, warm bath or other heat source can relax the surrounding muscles and reduce tension and spasms, a significant contributor to degenerative disc pain.
Pain medications. Over-the-counter pain medications fall into two main categories—pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), and anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin (Bayer), and naproxen (Aleve). These medications are typically recommended for low-level chronic pain and mild pain episodes. For severe pain episodes, prescription painkillers such as muscle relaxants and narcotic painkillers may be recommended. Prescription pain medications are usually prescribed for short-term pain, as they can be highly addictive.
TENS units. A TENS unit (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) is a small device that sends electric pulses through the body that interfere with and minimize pain signals. A TENS unit may include a device that transmits the signals directly over the skin, or a device that connects through wires to electrode pads worn on the skin, as well as a remote providing a range of frequencies for varying pain levels.
Manual manipulation. A chiropractor or spine specialist can manually adjust the spinal structures to relieve muscle tension, remove pressure from a nerve root, and relieve tension in the joints. Manual manipulation can provide temporary pain relief and improved mobility, and for some patients has been shown to be as effective as pain medications.
Epidural Steroid Injections. A steroid injected around the spine’s protective outer layer can provide temporary pain relief, which helps to improve mobility. Injection treatments may be recommended prior to a physical therapy program, so exercises can be effectively completed with minimal pain.