Your Back Pain Could Be Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

Health Minute     Spring 2019

A prolonged bout with back pain or unexplained tingling in the arms may actually turn out to be degenerative disc disease. It’s a natural part of aging for most, said Neal Mehan, MD, a spine neurosurgeon with the Clinical Neuroscience Institute.

In a young and healthy back, discs between the vertebra provide height and allow bending, flexing and twisting. The discs act like shock absorbers between bones of the spine and are designed to help the back stay flexible while resisting forces, according to the Arthritis Foundation. “As we age, we lose the water content of the discs in our spine and eventually they become rigid and prone to injury,” said Dr. Mehan, who practices with Premier Physician Network. “Degenerative discs can cause pinching of the spinal cord or the nerves in the spine.”

The symptoms of disc disease can include:

  • Pinching of the nerves, which can cause pain, numbness or tingling in your arms 
  • Pinching of the spinal cord, which can make walking difficult

Many of the condition’s symptoms are shared by other disorders, which can make an initial diagnosis difficult. Disc disease may be mistaken for a pinched nerve in the neck. And shoulder pain caused by disc disease may first be thought of as a problem with the rotator cuff.

Medical imaging studies have shown that nearly everyone over the age of 60 has degeneration of the discs, but not everyone has pain. Although age is the primary risk factor for degenerative disc disease, there are other things that can increase your risk for developing it, such as smoking and a history of trauma to the back from an accident or fall, Dr. Mehan said.

The disease often produces symptoms in the lower back or neck, depending on where the affected discs are located. Understanding your symptoms and signs can lead to a more accurate diagnosis. Pay attention to:

  • Degree of pain – Degenerative discs can produce pain that ranges from nagging to severe and disabling.
  • Location of pain – Consider where the pain resides. Degenerative discs usually affect the lower back, buttocks and thighs. Neck pain may also radiate to the arms or hands.
  • Painless signs – Degenerative discs may not always produce pain, but rather numbness or tingling in the extremities. It may also cause weakness in leg muscles.
  • Your body’s position – Degenerative discs can produce pain that gets worse when sitting or is exacerbated when bending, lifting or twisting.
  • What brings relief – Pain from degenerative discs usually lessens when walking, moving, changing positions or when lying down.

Treatment for degenerative disc disease can range from conservative methods, such as physical therapy, to surgery that replaces damaged discs or fuses the spine together. Self-care measures may help keep the disease in check. This requires getting the proper amount of physical activity, eating a balanced diet and engaging in strengthening exercises aimed at muscles that support the back.

For more information on cervical degenerative disc disease, talk with your doctor or visit us online to find a physician.