Back Pain From Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)

by Gavin Morrison on December 22, 2014

Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is the medical term that refers to the excessive degeneration of the intervertebral discs in the spine. As discs age they lose water content which leads to decreased disc height. This loss of disc height reduces the space between the vertebrae can irritate facet joints, ligaments and nerves causing pain in the back and/or neck. DDD is most commonly found in the cervical spine (neck) and lower back (lumbar spine). The condition is also called spinal degeneration or simply put, disc disease.

A_WBJ_DegenerativeDiscDDD is often age related. By the time an adult is 30 years old, he or she will have some degree of disc degeneration most commonly in the lumbar discs. Studies have shown similar degeneration in the cervical discs by the same age. DDD is common in both men and women.

Disc Desiccation

Disc desiccation is a term often used in conjunction with degenerative disc disease. It is the first step in the DDD process. Desiccation means to dehydrate or to lose water. The discs, as are most parts of our body, composed mainly of water. Some water loss in the discs is a normal part of aging. However genetic factors, postural syndromes or an injury to a disc, such as a herniation can accelerate the DDD process. Obvious signs of DDD can easily be seen on a MRI and the loss of disc height can be seen on a simple x-ray.

When the dehydration process starts the discs shrink, losing bulk, vertical height and perimeter. This can lead to other problems in the spine. It is not uncommon to find arthritis in the facet joints as well as osteophytes (bone spurs).

DDD is not exclusive to the elderly. Studies have shown patients as early as 30 reporting signs of DDD. Factors like family genetics, lifestyle and nutrition deprivation can make some of us more prone to DDD. Some amount of DDD is a normal part of the aging process and studies have shown that DDD by itself does not increase incidents of low back pain.

DDD generally becomes painful in combination with other conditions that occur in the spine. People who also have disc herniations and spinal stenosis are more likely to experience pain.

Physical Therapy for Degenerative Disc Disease

Physical therapy combined with other conservative treatment can reduce symptoms and allow the patient to lead a relatively normal life.

The primary goal of physical therapy for DDD is to reduce pain and stiffness, increase range of motion in the spine and hips, and improve core strength and body mechanics.

Treatment consists of:

1)    Deep tissue massage to improve blood flow and reduce muscle stiffness
2)    Manual stretching to increase hip and back range of motion
3)    Therapeutic exercise for increasing core and back strength
4)    Electrical nerve stimulation along with heat and ice to reduce pain
5)    A home exercise program to stop the progression of the disease

Patients will generally feel a significant improvement in their back pain within three to four weeks of starting physical therapy. Improvement in strength, posture and range of motion will often eliminate the irritation and pain in the spine, allowing patients to get back to doing their normal activities of daily living pain free. Patients also learn a thorough stretching and strengthening routine that they can use at home or at the gym to combat the progression of degeneration.

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