What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

By Ryan E. Schnetzer, MD

Your spine has important responsibilities.

  • It enables your body to have structural support, so you can maintain an upright posture.
  • It provides your body with balance, so you can perform flexible movements while you’re in motion.
  • The spine and rib cage guard your vital organs. For example, if you were to experience a blow to the chest, your ribs might be broken but your heart and lungs would be protected — and it’s easier for doctors to mend a broken rib bone than it is to repair a traumatic cardio-thoracic injury.
  • It protects the all-important connections that make up your nervous system, including the spinal cord and nerve roots. Without your nervous system, your brain couldn’t send the electrical signals that communicate with the rest of your body.

No matter if you’re sitting, standing, lying down or moving about, your spine is always at work. Is it any wonder that your spine might have suffered from all the wear and tear it has endured over the years?


Degenerative Disc Disease

What is degenerative disc disease? It occurs when the discs, which act like small pieces of shock-absorbing padding between the bones in your spinal column, dry up, crack and wear away. Without this padded protection, the bones of your spine can rub against each other, resulting in constant aches of pain, sudden jolts of sharp pain or a combination of both.


Locations of Spinal Pain on the Body

If you are experiencing spinal pain and it is specific to your lower back — or, the lumbar region — that is considered lumbar degenerative disc disease. If your spinal pain is more pronounced around the back of your neck and radiates down your arms, that is considered cervical degenerative disc disease.

Degenerative Disc Disease Causes

Degenerative disk disease is a common condition in many people, especially in women and anyone who is 40 and older. Besides age and gender, additional causes of degenerative disc disease include:

  • Acute (sudden onset) injuries, such as falling
  • Chronic (long-term) overuse and repetitive use, such as from a physically demanding job
  • Obesity
  • Smoking


What Are the Options for Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment?

Individuals with acute or chronic back and neck pain don’t need to suffer from aches and soreness. Treatments are available to help you return to your favorite activities with your friends and family members.

Your physician will begin with the least-invasive remedies, including physical therapy sessions, heat at the pain site and anti-inflammatory medicines. If those treatments don’t relieve your pain, your doctor might add injections and nerve root blocks to your pain management regimen.


Degenerative Disc Disease Surgery

Surgical advancements have made it possible to alleviate the pain from degenerative disc disease. An alternative to spinal fusion, total disc replacement (TDR) is performed by a surgeon who specializes in spinal surgery. The damaged disc is removed from either the lower back (lumbar) region of the spine or the neck (cervical) region, and a replacement disc is inserted in its place by the surgeon.

Disc replacement surgery can lead to reduced pain, regained movement and increased quality of life. Learn if disc replacement surgery is right for you.



About the Author:

Dr. Ryan E. Schnetzer is a Board Certified, Fellowship Trained Orthopaedic Spine Surgeon at OrthoGeorgia.  He completed his degree graduating cum-laude while playing football on two SEC Championship teams for the University of Georgia. While at the University of Georgia, Dr. Schnetzer received the SEC Male Scholar Athlete Award, Coaches Senior Leadership Award, and achieved the SEC Academic Honor Roll three years running. His special interests include treating mechanical and neurological disorders of the spine, disc replacement, spine deformity and instability. He is certified in the latest minimally invasive robot-assisted techniques for nerve decompression and fusion that provides for a shorter hospital stay, less recovery.

Opinions expressed herein are those of Dr. Schnetzer based upon his qualifications as a surgeon.

Important Note: The patient information presented is for general education purposes only. As with any spine surgery, there are potential benefits, complications, and risks associated with disc replacement and spinal fusion procedures. Individual results may vary. It is important that you discuss the possible risks and potential benefits of various procedures with your doctor prior to receiving treatment, and that you rely on your physician’s best judgment. Only your doctor can determine whether you are a suitable candidate for a specific surgical procedure.

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