what is degenerative disc disease?
What is degenerative disc disease? If you have back pain that doesn’t go away or worsens, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. There are many causes of back pain, but in today’s post, Dr. Michael Zeringue, board certified pain management and sports medicine specialist, answers questions about one common cause -- Degenerative Disc Disease.
Q: What causes Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)?
A: There seem to be both hereditary and environmental factors in the development of Degenerative Disc Disease. If your parents have it, then you’re likely to have it. Certain repetitive activities in certain occupations, such as heavy labor or construction, may also put you more at risk.
Q: What are the symptoms of DDD?
A: The primary symptom is a chronic, achy, daily pain that has flare-ups from time-to-time. There is not always a clear precipitating factor that causes the flare-ups. Sometimes it is obvious, with overuse, but even trivial motions can trigger flare-ups. A lot of times, it can stabilize as we get older, into our 60s. It’s more common in patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
"The primary symptom is a chronic, achy, daily pain that has flare-ups from time-to-time. There is not always a clear precipitating factor."
- Michael Zeringue, MD, MPH
Q: Can someone have DDD without displaying symptoms?
A: Yes. It doesn’t necessarily cause pain. We sometimes notice it on an X-ray or MRI. If you do have pain, the pain will usually be worse with sitting.
Q: How do you diagnose DDD?
A: We primarily diagnose it through patient and family history. We may also use imaging tests, like X-rays and MRIs.
Q: Is it possible for someone who has a family history to avoid developing DDD?
A: In some ways, no. However, there are many things that have been found to be helpful in avoiding degenerative disc disease. Mostly, they are healthy lifestyle habits:
If you have a job where you have to sit for eight hours a day, it’s a good idea to allow your back a break with frequent standing and stretching.
Q: What area of the spine does DDD typically affect?
A: It can affect any portion of the spine. Most often, patients complain of pain in their neck and lower back.
Q: At what point should a patient seek treatment for DDD?
A: If chronic back pain has been going on for more than a month, and it’s becoming worse than mild pain, you should be evaluated. If there’s no improvement with time and over-the-counter pain medicines, or if it’s worsening, you should see a doctor.
A physician can help calm down flare-ups and recommend treatments to alleviate pain sooner. It’s also important to seek treatment because you don’t want to miss other, more urgent or emergent back problems.
"If chronic back pain has been going on for more than a month, and it’s becoming worse than mild pain, you should be evaluated."
- Michael Zeringue, MD, MPH
Q: What is the treatment plan for DDD?
A: The most common treatment is staying active. Physical therapy works well with exercises to build core strength. Also, you should avoid high-impact activities. If that doesn’t work, we will move to anti-inflammatory or other pain medicines.
We may also try spine injections -- epidural or facet injections. Often, degenerative disc disease can be found concurrently with facet disease. A doctor can help discern which issue is causing the pain, since they often go along with one another. Surgical solutions, such as a fusion, can be offered, but surgery for degenerative disc disease is a last resort.
Q: How long can the treatment options provide relief for back pain?
A: Epidural injections are often good for acute flare-ups, especially if there is a recent tear in the disc.
If the pain is caused by facet disease, we can treat it for six to 18 months with a procedure called a rhizotomy. For some people, the procedure can provide life-long relief.
Have Questions About Degenerative Disc Disease?
Today’s post covers many of the common questions Dr. Zeringue hears from his patients who have been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. However, every case is unique. If you have questions or concerns about diagnosing and the long term treatment options available, contact us today to schedule an appointment with us. We have two convenient locations available to see you.
About the Doctor
Michael Zeringue, MD, MPH is a triple board certified physician in Pain Management, Sports Medicine and Family Medicine and specializes in interventional spine and ultrasound guided injections. Dr. Zeringue earned his medical degree from Tulane University in New Orleans and completed his internship and residency in Family Medicine at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. Following residency Dr. Zeringue finished two separate fellowships in Sports Medicine and Pain Management. He is a life long resident of the New Orleans area and served for several years as team physician for Brother Martin High School in New Orleans.
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