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Degenerative Disc Disease (Lumbar Spine)

Degenerative disc disease in the lumbar spine is a condition characterized by lower back pain, and caused by age-related wear and tear on one or more discs in the spine.

Degenerative Disc Disease (Lumbar Spine) Hero Image 2

Spinal discs can be found between each vertebra (the bones that make up the spine). These discs help hold the vertebrae together, and provide protection during movements that can place stress on the spine, like running and lifting. Degeneration is a normal part of aging, and isn’t usually associated with pain – but if the individual experiences pain or other symptoms associated with degeneration, they may be diagnosed with degenerative disc disease.

A diagnosis of degenerative disc disease may be made after one or more different injuries to the spinal disc, including:

  • Bulge
  • Hernia
  • Crack
  • Thinning

What causes Degenerative Disc Disease (Lumbar Spine)?

The lower back undergoes a tremendous amount of stress and movement throughout our lifetime. As we get older, spinal discs can become dehydrated and therefore become stiffer and less able to take on stress from daily movement. When spinal discs aren’t able to take on the stress that they once could, they’re more likely to become damaged.

Degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine is common among individuals who play/have played these sports:

  • Gymnastics
  • Hockey
  • Soccer
  • Weight Lifting

 

Symptoms

The most common symptom associated with degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine is continuous pain in the lower back and buttocks that is worse when sitting, bending, twisting, or lifting. Other symptoms of degenerative disc disease in the lumbar spine include:

  • Stiffness of the lower back
  • Numbness or tingling in the legs and/or feet
  • Weakness in the legs

When to see a doctor

If you have symptoms of lumbar degenerative disc disease, make an appointment to see an orthopedic specialist. Certain symptoms, like numbness or tingling in the legs, could indicate that there is some type of nerve injury. Your doctor will ask you to describe your symptoms and will do a physical examination to look for tenderness of the spine and assess range of motion of the back.

To make a diagnosis, your doctor may prescribe the following imaging tests:

  • CT scan
  • X-rays
  • MRI

Non-operative treatment

Pain associated with lumbar degenerative disc disease can oftentimes be treated using conservative, non-operative treatment methods, including:

  • Avoiding high-impact activities, like jogging, that can aggravate the spine and choose low-impact activities, like walking, instead
  • Avoiding activities that can place stress on the spine, like heavy lifting
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain
  • Steroid injections to reduce inflammation
  • Physical therapy and/or Chiropractic care to stretch and strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine

 

Surgical Treatment

If symptoms of lumbar degenerative disc disease do not go away with conservative treatments, your doctor will recommend surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal disc. Degenerative disc disease can be treated using multiple surgeries, including:

  • Discectomy: The damaged spinal disc is removed to make space in the spinal canal and take the pressure off of the nerves.
  • Artificial disc replacement: The damaged spinal disc is replaced with an artificial disc
  • Spinal fusion: Two vertebrae are fused together to provide support for the spine. A bone graft is placed between the two vertebrae. When this bone grows, it fuses the two vertebrae and provides structure

Recovery

Lumbar degenerative disc disease is a lifelong condition that must be managed long-term. There is no cure for disc degeneration. Some people successfully manage symptoms with conservative, non-operative treatments for years.

The time it takes to recover from surgery depends on the procedure you need. For each type of surgery, you will be asked to stay in the hospital for a few days before being released. You will be instructed by their doctors to start a physical therapy program to regain mobility and strength of the spine. Recovery from a discectomy or artificial disc replacement may take between two to three months, while full recovery from spinal fusion surgery can take at least six months.

 

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