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Degenerative Disc Disease: What Causes It
and What Are The Treatment Options

Many people are under the mistaken impression that degenerative disc disease is actually a disease. However, it’s not. It’s actually the term used to refer to the normal changes the spine goes through as people get older. It’s the result of deterioration of the spinal discs – soft, cushiony discs that lie between the bony vertebrae.

Think of spinal discs as shock absorbers – they’re away from the bones and let the spine flex, twist and bend. Degenerative disc disease can be found in the lower back (lumbar area) and neck (cervical area), causing any of the three conditions:

  • Osteoarthritis – cartilage breakdown
  • Disc herniation – disc bulging
  • Spinal stenosis – narrowing of spinal canal

Each condition causes nerve problems and pain, due to pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.

What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is caused by aging. Aging causes fluid loss in the discs, which makes them less flexible and more delicate. The discs also become thinner, which causes the vertebrae to come closer together. Along with that, tears or small cracks in the discs can result in the leakage of jellylike material. When this happens, disc breakage, bulking and fragmentation are the end result.

How Does Degenerative Disc Disease Affect People

Each person afflicted with degenerative disc disease is not affected in the same manner or at the same pace. Smokers and people who are physically active and put pressure on the spine are likely to experience worse symptoms. A sudden accident can begin the deterioration process as well.

When the discs thin out, there’s not as much cushion for the spine, causing a loss in stability. The body, responding to this issue, will produce bone spurs called osteophytes. This causes pain due to the spinal nerve pressure. The pain varies but usually is felt on the neck and back, generally dependent upon the location of the degeneration and the sufferer. Neck-affected discs will cause pain in the neck and arms. The lumbar-affected discs will cause butt, back and/or leg pain.

How A Doctor/Physical Therapist Will Diagnose The Disease

A thorough medical history physical examination will be done by your doctor to diagnose the disease. They will look at or for:

  • Range of motion
  • Numbness
  • Pain
  • Tenderness
  • Reflexes
  • Infections
  • Fractures

Imaging tests are often used to learn where the disease is and help the doctor determine what course of treatment would be best.

What Treatments Are Considered For The Condition

Treatment of degenerative disc disease involves anti-inflammatory medicine, heat/ice and stretching. Physical therapy is also used to stabilize the areas afflicted so that the disc doesn’t degenerate any further. It’s also used to better mobility in joints, and reduce nerve irritation and muscle tension.

In more serious cases, physical therapy isn’t enough, which means surgery may be considered to take out the damaged disc. In the majority of these cases, physical therapy is often used first as a treatment option before surgery is even condoned. For more information about physical therapy visit Bethesda Metro Physical Therapy.

Monday10:00am - 8:00pm
Wednesday10:00am - 8:00pm
Thursday10:00am - 8:00pm
Friday11:00am - 5:00pm
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Bethesda Metro Physical Therapy
6931 Arlington Road Suite T200A
Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 907-2659


"After several weeks of therapy I no longer have the knee pain and can now tie my shoes while kneeling, something I hadn't been able to do in quite awhile."

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"I been coming here for 8 weeks now and sense the first therapy I feel less pain. They all work really hard at this office. With their help I know I will be the best I can be at the end. I recommend them!"

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Physical Therapy Bethesda MD Office Bethesda Metro Physical Therapy logo for footer

6931 Arlington Road Suite T200A

Bethesda, MD 20814