Degeneration of the discs particularly in the moving sections of the spine (cervical and lumbar levels) is a natural process of aging. This dehydration of the disc material reduces the flexibility and typically the height of the disc.
In most patients the mere presence of degenerative discs is not a problem leading to pain, neurological compression, or other symptoms. However, in a certain number of patients, the disc degeneration leads to spinal "instability," the condition in which the spine is unable to bear the patient's weight or perform its normal functions without disabling pain. In these circumstances, treatments are available to try to reduce the patient's pain.
Cervical disc degenerative disorder can be characterized by neck pain. This neck pain can be most prevalent when the patient is upright or moving the head and can be reduced by lying down or reclining. Often the disc will be associated with osteophytes or bone spurs. They can further reduce movement and lead to nerve compression. The cervical nerve roots innervate the back of the head and neck as well as the arms and hands. If they are affected, the patient could have burning, tingling, numbness, and pain in these areas. Sometimes headaches result from cervical degenerative disc problems.
Lumbar disc degenerative disorder can be associated with low back pain. It would typically be a weight-bearing type of back pain with severe pain on sitting. Standing for any length of time and walking can also be painful, as are bending and lifting. Associated lumbar radiculopathy or nerve root pain can be characterized by burning, numbness, tingling, and pain running from the buttock and low back down the leg.
In patients with multiple degenerative discs and associated pain, it is often difficult to distinguish which disc or discs are the pain generators. In this circumstance, additional, more invasive types of testing may be required.
There are different alternatives to surgery available for patients with degenerative disc disease and pain. Avoidance of painful behaviors including reclining or kneeling rather than sitting, not lifting in a bent position, and use of a corset brace are all options to try to reduce tensions and weight bearing by the affected lumbar disc. Patients who have degenerative discs in the lumbar spine can aid themselves by losing weight, building the back and stomach muscles through an exercise program, swimming, yoga and Pilates, and other core strengthening programs.
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Dr. Wayne M. Fichter Jr. is a chiropractor at Natural Spine Solutions. The business is located at 3913 Schreiber Way in Coeur d’Alene. (208) 966-4425.