Conditions

Degenerative Disc

Degenerative disc disease is not a disease per se, but rather a degenerative condition. The word “disease” tends to be confusing and lead to misconceptions about the condition, but what is important to know is that degeneration is, in many cases, unavoidable. The discs, which live between the vertebrae, naturally lose their water content as we age and can also be affected by injury. As the water content is reduced, so too is the liquid’s ability to act as a buffer. The pain that people feel when they’re suffering from disc degeneration comes from a lack of a cushioning effect from the desiccated (dried out) disc. This puts more stress on the adjacent vertebrae (bones) and joints which in turn causes more pain.  When a disc dries out, they can also herniate and/or tear causing more back or leg pain. Even minor movements can start to feel unbearable in serious cases.

This is a common occurrence that is the result of aging—in fact, it’s among the most frequent sources of pain in the neck and lower back. While not everyone experiences discomfort related to this condition, those who do can benefit from a variety of treatments to eliminate the pain.

Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

Chronic lower back or neck pain. Weakness or numbness in the arms. Pins and needles. Flare-ups that include cramps down the legs and even into the buttocks, which hurt more when you sit or stand. These are all potential symptoms of degenerative disc disease. Any one or a combination of symptoms is cause to see a doctor. Yes, the wear and tear on the spinal discs is just part of getting older for many people, but no one needs to be in agony when there are minimally invasive procedures that can treat the condition and help eliminate the pain.

Dangers of Delaying Treatment

While disc degeneration is a typical part of the aging process, not everyone develops symptoms. Also, not everyone who experiences some level of degeneration will need treatment, let alone surgery. However, for those who are in pain from degenerative disc disease, a variety of minimally invasive treatments can both eliminate the pain and ensure that the condition does not progress to something more dangerous.

Delaying treatment for degenerative disc disease can lead to prolonged pain and convalescence, which can then create or worsen other physical as well as mental health conditions. Patients can develop bone spurs, which can then lead to painful pinched of nerves in the spine. If the disk tears, the resulting pain may be excruciating. As discs degenerate they often collapse down and bulge into the spinal canal where the nerves are.  This is called spinal stenosis.  Subsequently the nerves get pinched/compressed and you may feel back or leg symptoms from it. In extreme cases, compressed nerves can lead to cauda equine syndrome, an especially dangerous condition that requires immediate surgery to avoid potential paralysis. Symptoms may include pain, numbness, tingling, weakness of the legs and loss of bowel and bladder control. 

Are you a candidate for surgery?

Most people who suffer from degenerative disc disease can be successfully treated without surgery. A combination of exercise, physical therapy, and medications including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) tend to be effective in many cases. If a patient is still in pain after several months, surgery may be warranted.

Today, several minimally invasive procedures have taken the place of more invasive treatments. They include:

  • DiscectomyDuring a discectomy, the damaged part of the disc is removed, taking pressure off the root.
  • ForaminotomyMinimally invasive cervical foraminotomies are performed through a very small incision in the back of the neck.
  • LaminectomyOutpatient procedures like minimally invasive laminectomies take pressure off of the compressed nerve.
  • All of the minimally invasive procedures above are done through a small tube. The tube is placed in between muscle fibers without cutting muscle.  This preserves the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the back.  The procedure is done with specialized instruments and microscopes to remove small pieces of bone and soft tissue to relieve the pressure off of the nerve. These procedures involve very minimal blood loss, are done outpatient and are suture less.  They are done through incisions less than an inch long, often requiring just a band aid.

Your surgeon will do a thorough examination and assess your condition to determine which procedure has the best chance of providing relief for your condition.

Recovery

Recovery from surgery related to degenerative disc disease varies greatly depending on the type of procedure. Traditional fusion surgeries can require hospitalization and several weeks to several months of downtime while you heal. Minimally invasive procedures can cut down dramatically on the recovery time, and some procedures can now be done as outpatient surgeries, with patients returning home the same day. Recovery is significantly easier and faster because these procedures are typically done with shorter surgeries using smaller incisions, resulting in less blood loss, less damage to the muscles and soft tissue, a lower risk of infection, and reduced pain.

Choosing a leading surgeon will not only help ensure that you ultimately achieve your goal of a pain-free life, but also that you are monitored and cared for along your path to recovery. Continued recovery support through any necessary medications, physical therapy where needed, and careful instructions help promote healing.

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