What is it: Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back pain, and also one of the most misunderstood. Many patients diagnosed with low back pain caused by degenerative disc disease are left wondering exactly what this diagnosis means for them.
A large part of many patients’ confusion is that the term “degenerative disc disease” sounds like a progressive, very threatening condition. However, this condition is not strictly degenerative and is not really a disease.
Statistics: More than 65 million Americans suffer from lower back pain annually.1
By the age of fifty, 85 percent of the population will show evidence of disc degeneration. The vast majority of these cases are asymptomatic.
Important Facts: Many times, people suffering from DDD do not show symptoms. When symptoms are present, chronic low back pain with or without radiation to the hips or aching pain in the buttocks and or the backs of the thighs may be seen with walking. Other symptoms include pain generally made worse with sitting, bending, lifting and twisting.
Common Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease Include: The low back pain is generally made worse with sitting, since in the seated position the lumbosacral discs are loaded three times more than standing.
Treatment Duration: For most people, degenerative disc disease can be successfully treated with conservative (meaning non-surgical) care consisting of medication to control inflammation and pain (either oral or injection), and physical therapy and exercise. Surgery is only considered when patients have not achieved relief over six months of conservative care and/or are significantly constrained in performing everyday activities.
Do’s/Don’ts: The first objective for patients is to control their pain enough so that they can perform everyday activities and engage in active physical therapy and exercise. Stay active to slow the disc degeneration. Once pain is adequately controlled (it will most likely not go away completely) the most important thing patients can do is stay active.
Common Myths: One very important tenet in chronic pain is that the level and extent of pain does not equal tissue damage. Severely degenerated discs may not produce much pain at all, and discs with little degeneration can produce severe pain.
In this manner, chronic pain is very different from acute pain. With acute pain, the severity of pain directly correlates to the level of tissue damage. This provides us with a protective reflex, such as the reflex to remove your hand immediately if you put it on something hot.