Degenerative Disc Disease
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Feb 4, 2024.
What is degenerative disc disease?
Degenerative disc disease happens when one or more discs between the vertebrae (bones in your spine) wear down. Discs act like a cushion between your vertebrae and help to stabilize your spine. Degenerative disc disease commonly occurs in the neck or lower back as you get older.
What increases my risk for degenerative disc disease?
- A past herniated disc or spinal injury
- A job that requires heavy, physical work
- Inherited genes
What are the signs and symptoms of degenerative disc disease?
Your symptoms depend on where you have the degenerative disc. You may have headaches or neck, shoulder, or lower back pain that gets worse with activity.
How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms. Tell your provider if you had any back injury or you do heavy physical work regularly. An x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may show signs of disc degeneration. You may be given contrast liquid to help the spinal canal show up better in the pictures. Tell the provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
How is degenerative disc disease treated?
- NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
- Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines you are using to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
- Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely. Some prescription pain medicines contain acetaminophen. Do not take other medicines that contain acetaminophen without talking to your healthcare provider. Too much acetaminophen may cause liver damage. Prescription pain medicine may cause constipation. Ask your healthcare provider how to prevent or treat constipation.
- Physical therapy may be recommended to decrease pain and help improve movement and strength. A physical therapist may also do spinal decompression to stretch and open the area between your vertebrae. You may be taught certain stretches or exercises to help relieve your symptoms.
- Spinal injections may help to decrease pain and inflammation around the disc.
- Surgery may be needed if other treatments do not work. You may need surgery on the vertebrae, spinal fusion, or a disc replacement.
The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.
What can I do to manage degenerative disc disease?
- Avoid activities that make your symptoms worse. Ask how to stay active without causing more injury.
- Apply ice on the area to decrease pain. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel before you apply it to your skin. Apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed.
- Apply heat on the area to decrease pain and muscle spasms. Use a heat pack or a heating pad on a low setting. Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms. Apply heat for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Ask your healthcare provider what a healthy weight is for you. If you are overweight, weight loss may help improve your symptoms. Ask your provider to help you create a weight loss plan, if needed.
- Find ways to manage stress. Learn new ways to relax, such as deep breathing. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have trouble controlling stress. Your provider may be able to recommend treatment for stress.
- Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars increase your risk for degenerative disc disease. Ask your provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your provider before you use these products.
When should I seek immediate care?
- You have severe pain or weakness, or you cannot move your arm or leg.
- You lose control of your bladder or bowels.
When should I call my doctor?
- Your pain gets worse, or you cannot control it with pain medicine.
- Your symptoms get worse.
- You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.
Care AgreementYou have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.
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Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.