Degenerative disc disease is technically not a disease, but rather a degeneration of the discs located in the cervical spine. It occurs when the cushioning discs in the cervical spine begin to break down over time. Subsequently, it’s a common cause of neck pain for adults and the elderly, though it’s also possible to cause some individuals discomfort early on. Aside from age, other risk factors include injury and a genetic predisposition to more rapid wear.
In this blog post, we’ll review the causes of and risk factors associated with degenerative disc disease, symptoms, and various treatments. While better understanding the cause of your neck pain can help you take steps to relieve discomfort, it’s important to speak with a medical professional if the pain is persistent or affecting your day-to-day life.
Causes and Risk Factors
So how do cervical discs degenerate? Cervical discs are situated between each of the vertebrae in the cervical spine, absorbing shock and preventing bones from rubbing against one another. These discs are primarily comprised of water (they’re typically made up of 85% water in children), but naturally lose hydration over time. Some people are genetically predisposed to lose hydration of the cervical disc earlier than others. Other risk factors associated with degenerative disc disease include:
Occasional injuries, even minor ones, to the spine and neck can damage discs in the cervical spine. When these injuries occur, fluid (i.e. hydration) decreases and thins the discs, making them less effective at cushioning the vertebral bones.
Research has linked heavier weight with a higher risk of developing degenerative disc disease than someone who is at a healthy weight.
Individuals that smoke are at more risk for a variety of diseases and health issues, including degenerative disc disease. Over time, smoking causes discs in the cervical spine to lose hydration more rapidly.
Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease
There are multiple potential symptoms of degenerative disc disease, ranging from mild discomfort to debilitating pain or neurological symptoms. Sometimes pain develops slowly over time, whereas other times it’s sudden and severe.
The most common symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:
Pain in the neck
With degenerative disc disease, the amount of pain in the neck fluctuates and varies. It could be a slight stiffness of full-blown flare-ups that may last for days.
Isolated pain due to nerves
Sharp pain, which may shoot down the shoulder into the arm or only felt on one side or in specific areas, is another common symptom of degenerative disc disease.
Numbness or tingling in the arm, hand, or fingers
Degenerative disc disease can also result in feelings of numbness or tingling in the neck, shoulder, and/or down into the arms and hands.
The varying nature of degenerative disc disease symptoms make it impossible to diagnose without a doctor’s expertise. Given that many of these symptoms are also associated with other conditions, it’s imperative to consult a medical professional to rule out any other potential issues.
Degenerative Disc Disease Treatments
Less severe cases of degenerative disc disease require less severe treatments, and vice versa. From conservative to extreme, we’ll review a few of the treatment options:
For those with degenerative disc disease, certain activities, such as sitting for hours in front of a computer, might cause pain in the neck. Refraining from such activities can alleviate pain. Ensuring you’re using good posture also helps.
Ice and Heat Therapy
Applying a heated or iced pack can provide some relief to those who are suffering from degenerative disc disease.
Exercising and stretching, whether done on one’s own or with a physical therapist, can increase strength and flexibility, lowering the risk of pain.
Visiting a Chiropractor
Manual manipulation through chiropractic adjustments can improve the range of motion of the neck.
Prescribed Medications or Injections
Muscle relaxants, oral steroids, pain relievers, or injections that deliver medication to a specific area may be needed in more moderate to severe cases of degenerative disc disease.
In severe cases, where neurological symptoms are present (i.e. numbness or tingling) or pain is chronic, surgery may be necessary. If you’re experiencing these symptoms or have been suffering from chronic pain for more than six months despite having tried more conservative treatments, find a surgeon to talk with about your options.