What is spinal degeneration?

Degeneration of the spine, or degenerative disc disease, is characterized by one or more of the intervertebral discs beginning to break down from wear and tear. The discs that provide cushioning between the vertebrae that make up the spine absorb the pressure and stress of movement and daily activities. Over time, the vertebrae rubbing against the discs can cause them to tear and thin, causing spinal degeneration.

The most common initial symptom of degenerative disc disease is low back pain that can spread to the buttocks, hips, and thighs. It is considered one of the most common causes of low back pain. Spinal degeneration and disc degeneration can also lead to bulging or herniated discs. Bulging discs are not usually considered a serious condition unless they are causing severe pain or the spinal canal is narrowed.

The pain of degenerative disc disease is usually caused by inflammation, abnormal micromotion instability, or a combination of both. Inflammation means that the discs have swollen. Swollen discs can put pressure on the nerves in the disc space, causing back pain. Micromotion abnormal instability occurs when the outer rings of the intervertebral discs become worn or damaged. Worn discs are not as effective at absorbing pressure from spinal movement, causing increased pressure on the vertebrae and nerves in the back.

Spinal degeneration is usually treated with mild pain relievers and rest. Resting on a firm mattress with a pillow under your knees can help relieve lower back pain. However, patients with spinal degeneration should not rest for more than two or three days at a time, as this can lead to weakening of the back muscles and make the problem worse.

Some patients with spinal degeneration see physical therapists to help improve the condition. Physical therapists work with patients with back disorders to teach them exercises to strengthen the back and core muscles that support the body, improve range of motion and flexibility, and reduce pain and inflammation. Physical therapy helps patients learn the proper way to support their spines when sitting, standing, and performing daily activities.

Epidural steroid injections are sometimes used to help control pain from spinal degeneration in some patients. The injections contain an anti-inflammatory steroid called cortisone that can help relieve swelling and pain from bulging discs, and reduce pain from irritated nerves in the disc spaces. Epidural steroid injections are generally used only when other less invasive pain relief methods have failed.

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