Understanding What “Degenerative Disc Disease” Really Means And How To Treat It

Degenerative disc disease often refers to symptoms of pain, numbness and weakness that may be radiating around the back or down the leg.  There is no simple explanation of degenerative disc disease, however, as many patients often wonder what the diagnosis means and how it will affect their daily life.  It is important to note that everyone will have some signs of wear and tear on their spinal discs as they age, but not everyone will experience the symptoms commonly associated with the condition.  It would surprise many patients to know that degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease at all.  Below, we will discuss the nature of degenerative disc disease to help patients better understand the diagnosis.

Anatomy of the Discs
First, in order to better understand the various conditions that can happen as a result of injury, trauma or everyday wear and tear, we need to understand the structure of the spinal discs.  The discs lie between the vertebrae and act as shock absorbers.  There are two parts to these discs: the annulus fibrosus (the tough outer layer) and the nucleus pulposus (the jelly-like core). If these proteins leak into the outer layer and touch the nerves that exit the spine, it can cause a great deal of pain.

The Diagnosis is a Misnomer
While this diagnosis of degenerative disc disease can be alarming to many patients, it is not necessarily a threatening condition.
“Degenerative” to most people means that it will progressively get worse over time; however, this term is referring more to the process of discs degenerating as you age rather than the progression of the pain itself.

“Disease” may also cause confusion as well because it denotes an illness.  Degenerative disc disease is not an illness but a condition that may or may not cause pain from a damaged disc.  Most, if not all, people will have some form of this condition; however, it is when the discs become damaged, bulging, or herniated that worrisome symptoms begin to arise.

In most cases, the pain from a degenerative disc condition can be managed with conservative modalities, such as physical therapy and spinal injections.  It is only when these modalities fail to provide adequate relief that surgery is considered.  For those who have not seen results from conservative modalities, a spinal procedure may be an effective option to relieve pain.  One procedure specifically, a Minimally Invasive Discectomy, has been proven to be an effective option for many spinal conditions, including disc herniations.  This procedure uses a small incision (usually about 1 inch) as well as small surgical tools to remove only the herniated portions of the spinal disc.  The removal of the herniated portion of the disc allows for the decompression of the affected spinal nerve, which in turn relieves symptoms.

Dr. Anthony Virella is a Board-Certified, Fellowship trained Neurological Spine Surgeon with advanced training in the management of complex spinal disorders. He attended medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and is a graduate of the UCLA Neurosurgery Residency Program. Dr. Virella completed his complex spine in-folding resident fellowship at the world renowned Cleveland Clinic Foundation with Dr. Edward C. Benzel, M.D. Additional work included a second fellowship in Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery at the UCLA Comprehensive Spine Center.Dr. Virella is a nationally recognized specialist in the field of complex and Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery and has offices located in Westlake Village and Valencia.

If you, or someone you love, is suffering from persistent neck or back pain, call us at 805.449.0088 to schedule an appointment.