Simply put, degenerative disc disease refers to symptoms of back or neck pain caused by wear-and-tear on a spinal disc. In some cases, degenerative disc disease also causes weakness, numbness, and hot, shooting pains in the arms or legs – radicular pain.

Degenerative disc disease typically consists of a low-level chronic pain with intermittent episodes of more severe pain. Other common symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:

  • Increased pain with activities that involve bending or twisting the spine, as well as lifting something heavy
  • A giving out sensation, caused by spinal instability, in which the neck or back feels as if it is unable to provide basic support, and may lock up and make movement feel difficult.
  • Muscle tension or muscle spasms, which are common effects of spinal instability. In some cases, a degenerated disc may cause no pain but muscle spasms are severely painful and temporarily debilitating.
  • Watch: Causes of Back Muscle Spasms Video
  • Possible radiating pain that feels sharp, stabbing, or hot. In cases of cervical disc degeneration, this pain is felt in the shoulder, arm, or hand (called a cervical radiculopathy); in cases of lumbar disc degeneration, pain is felt in the hips, buttocks, or down the back of the leg (called a lumbar radiculopathy).See Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms
    • Increased pain when holding certain positions, such as sitting or standing for extended periods (exacerbating low back pain), or looking down too long at a cell phone or book (worsening neck pain).

    See Neck Pain Symptoms

    • Reduced pain when changing positions frequently, rather than remaining seated or standing for prolonged periods. Likewise, regularly stretching the neck can decrease cervical disc pain, and taking short, frequent walks during the day can decrease lumbar disc pain.

    See Lower Back Pain Symptoms

    • Decreased pain with certain positions, such as sitting in a reclining position or lying down with a pillow under the knees, or using a pillow that maintains the neck’s natural curvature during sleep.

    The amount of chronic pain referred to as the baseline pain is quite variable between individuals and can range from almost no pain or just a nagging level of irritation, to severe and disabling pain.

    Pain Management

    A key focus of pain management is to improve mobility and reduce pain so daily activities and rehabilitative exercise is more tolerable. Pain from a degenerated disc is usually attributed to instability, muscle tension, and inflammation, so these causes should be addressed.

    See Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment for Low Back Pain

    Some pain management methods are administered at home as self-care practices, including:

    Ice or cold treatment. Applying ice or a cold pack to a painful area of the spine can relieve pain by reducing inflammation, which can be helpful following exercise or activity.

    See Ice Packs for Back Pain Relief

    Heat therapy. Using heat from a heating pad, adhesive wrap, warm bath or other heat source can relax the surrounding muscles and reduce tension and spasms, a significant contributor to degenerative disc pain.

    See How to Apply Heat Therapy

    Pain medications. Over-the-counter pain medications fall into two main categories pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), and anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin (Bayer), and naproxen (Aleve). These medications are typically recommended for low-level chronic pain and mild pain episodes. For severe pain episodes, prescription painkillers such as muscle relaxants and narcotic painkillers may be recommended. Prescription pain medications are usually prescribed for short-term pain, as they can be highly addictive.

    See Pain Medications for Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment

    TENS units. A TENS unit (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) is a small device that sends electric pulses through the body that interfere with and minimize pain signals. A TENS unit may include a device that transmits the signals directly over the skin, or a device that connects through wires to electrode pads worn on the skin, as well as a remote providing a range of frequencies for varying pain levels.

    See Pain Management Techniques for Degenerative Disc Disease

    Other pain management methods need to be administered by a qualified health professional, such as:

    Manual manipulation. A chiropractor or spine specialist can manually adjust the spinal structures to relieve muscle tension, remove pressure from a nerve root, and relieve tension in the joints. Manual manipulation can provide temporary pain relief and improved mobility, and for some patients has been shown to be as effective as pain medications.

    See Manual Physical Therapy for Pain Relief

    Epidural Steroid Injections. A steroid injected around the spines protective outer layer can provide temporary pain relief, which helps to improve mobility. Injection treatments may be recommended prior to a physical therapy program, so exercises can be effectively completed with minimal pain.

    See Epidural Steroid Injections

    In many cases, trial-and-error is needed to find which types of treatment work best. Due to the long-term nature of degenerative disc disease, preferred pain management methods may change over time.

    Exercise and Physical Therapy

    The goals of exercise are to help the spine heal and prevent or reduce further recurrences of pain. An exercise program for degenerative disc pain will typically include:

    Stretching. Targeted stretches are useful for decreasing tension and improving flexibility in the spinal muscles. For cervical disc pain, stretching muscles in the neck, shoulders, and upper back can relieve pain; stretching muscles in lower back, hips, pelvis, and the hamstring muscles can help alleviate low back pain.

    Strengthening exercises. Conditioning the muscles to better support the cervical or lumbar spine can help provide added support to a degenerating spinal segment, reducing pain and instability.

    See Exercise and Physical Therapy for Disc Disease Treatment and Pain Management

    Aerobic exercise. Regular aerobic exercise is important for maintaining healthy circulation and keeping the joints and muscles active. Aerobic exercises elevate the heart rate, increasing the flow of nutrients and oxygen throughout the body, including to the spinal structures. Low-impact options are recommended for pain worsened by jostling or jolting motions, and may include a stationary bike, an elliptical machine, or water aerobics.

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