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  • Writer's pictureJon Martinez

Is Degenerative Disc Disease Dangerous?

As a Dr. of Physical Therapy, I treat a lot of back disorders, and one diagnosis that seems to cause a lot of undue panic and stress is Degenerative Disc Disease (AKA: DDD), but what is it and why is the name so scary?

To start, if you're reading this, let's cut to the chase for your peace of mind. DDD isn't dangerous and it isn't a lifelong sentence to illness like other diseases. If you've researched it a bit already you may have learned that it is closely related to, or even commonly referred to as arthritis of the spine, and that isn't too far off from the truth. So why did the medical community create this absurdly long and scary name? Rest assured it most likely wasn't malicious. If you're open to learning more, keep reading this brief breakdown otherwise rest easy knowing DDD is not dangerous and isn't a disease in the way we typically think of diseases.

To start our breakdown, the term Degenerative Disc Disease essentially translates to "there's evidence of wear and tear on the vertebral discs" in medical jargon. This can be caused by normal age-related changes, repetitive movements, back strains, and other micro-injuries that build up in the spine over time. This typically involves the disc looking thinner or more dehydrated than normal.

The term arthritis typically refers to joint line inflammation, specifically in the areas where one bone contacts another bone. Arthritis can occur in anybody as a result of trauma/ injury, normal age-related changes, repetitive movements, and other micro-injuries that build up in the joint over time. This typically involves the joint space looking thinner or less lubricated than normal (sound familiar?).

Now, let's look at the anatomy of our spine. If we look in between each large bone (vertebral bodies) we have relatively large, dense, and almost rubber-like cushions called discs. These discs help our spine create large ranges of movement and serve as a nice cushion for the bones when compressive forces are placed upon them.

So if we think about it this way, arthritis is inflammation of the bony parts of a joint and the discs separate the large bones in our spine. So we can't get a clear picture of where the problem is by simply saying "back arthritis" since there are some points in the spine that share bony contacts and a large portion that is separated by a disc. When the typical presentation of arthritis (inflammation and decreased hydration) appears at the disc level we refer to it as a degenerative disc which tells us that arthritis-like symptoms are present in the spine but not necessarily in the bones.

As for that spicy word, "disease" at the end of DDD... well, a disease isn't always a progressive life-long sentence for illness. It is simply defined as "the state of disorder or dysfunction in the body that contributes to a specific set of symptoms". For DDD This can include pain, limited movement, difficulty lifting weights, instability, and in some cases numbness or tingling in the legs or hip region.

The good news is, that many people with DDD report having no symptoms at all. In fact, most people with DDD experience longer periods of normalcy with intermittent flare-ups of back pain throughout the year. But, flare-ups shouldn't be feared too much because, like other tissues in the body, irritated discs can respond well to time, improved circulation, and a healthy balance of rest and movement to reduce symptoms and calm flare-ups.

So to reiterate, DDD is not life-threatening but it can contribute to periods of pain and variable levels of disability. It is typically managed well with a conservative approach like physical therapy, home exercise programs, yoga, weight loss, and general healthy lifestyle habits.

If you've been struggling with a prolonged DDD flare-up please contact your healthcare provider or local physical therapist to see what approach may be best for you. If you happen to be in the RGV area of Texas please do not hesitate to contact my office and I'd be happy to have a more in-depth conversation to help you get on the road to recovery. Thanks for reading!

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