What is Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease?

Lumbar degenerative disc disease is often the result of the natural aging process. Each vertebrae in the spine has a disc that cushions the top and bottom of the vertebrae. These discs function as normal shock absorbers to the spine. Over time, these demands can cause degeneration leading to pain in the low back. As a spine specialist, Dr. Ernest Braxton utilizes surgical and non-surgical treatment options for lumbar degenerative disc disease.

What is the Anatomy of the Disc?

The anatomy of the lumbar disc is strong in nature. The outer portion of the disc is made up of tough rings of collagen known as the annulus; the inner portion of the ring is made of a gel like material known as the nucleus, which helps absorb pressure. The endplates facilitate flow of nutrients and oxygen in and out of the disc helping to maintain the health of the disc. Degeneration of this complex design is normal over time.

What Causes Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease?

There are many causes of lumbar degenerative disc disease. Encased by the annulus, the nucleus is the largest structure of the body that receives no blood flow. The disc endplates facilitate the flow of fluid in and out of the nucleus but the oxygen supply is limited. The cells within the disc become less effective over time.

The high pressure within the disc can reduce causing the disc to be vulnerable to abnormal movement. A sudden turn or twist, lifting a heavy object, or a fall can result in the onset of lower back pain. The tough collagen rings may also be torn, triggering pain. There is evidence that degenerative disc disease may be genetic. Other causes include:

  • Nerve inflammation

  • Endplate erosion

  • Disc space reduction

  • Muscle spasms

How to Know If I Have Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease?

The symptoms of lumbar degenerative disc disease are typically within three categories:

  • Increasing pain from a sudden event
  • Chronic pain that ebbs and flows over time
  • Severe pain from loss of shock absorption between vertebrae

In the case of a sudden onset, patients report an immediate sensation that the back popped or went out. A simple, yet abnormal movement such as bending over can trigger a bulging disc. In the short term, back pain may be severe; this may be due to muscle spasms related to disc degeneration including a tear of the annular collagen bands. Although pain may be severe initially, patients will notice improvements in pain within a few days to a couple of weeks. In the case of chronic pain that ebbs and flows, patients may identify activities that aggravate the pain such as running and jumping.

Degenerative disc disease is the most common cause of lower back pain. Patients experiencing severe and even intolerable pain may have disc degeneration so complete that the disc no longer provides the necessary cushion between vertebrae. This level of pain can be extremely debilitating for patients.

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How to Diagnose Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease

To diagnose lumbar degenerative disc disease Dr. Braxton will complete a full medical history including onset of symptoms along with a physical and neurological exam. Range of motion, muscle strength, and identifying specific movement that increase or decrease pain will be evaluated. The physical exam will include palpation along the spine to locate areas or abnormalities, inflammation or tenderness. Diagnostic imaging may be used including X-Ray, MRI, CT scan and EMG.

Can Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease Be Reversed?

Dr. Braxton can help treat patients non-surgically who are suffering from lumbar degenerative disc disease through pain management and physical therapy. Pain management can include anesthetic and steroid injection for major pain. Physical therapy is a central part of conservative treatment. Core muscle strength stabilizes the affected area of the back. Other forms of treatment include:

  • Improved posture and movement habits to help minimize stress to the spine

  • Chiropractic manipulation

  • Cardiovascular activities to build strength and endurance

  • Acupuncture can help facilitate pain relief and recovery

These non-surgical treatments allow patients to manage lumbar degenerative disc disease and help get them the back to preferred activities and lifestyle.

How to Treat Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease?

Following a complete course of non-surgical treatments some individuals can continue to experience chronic lower back pain due to degenerative disc degeneration. Dr. Braxton works closely with each patient to determine if surgery is the recommended treatment for their condition.

Other conditions related to degenerative disc disease such as a herniated disc or compressed nerve typically respond well to lumbar surgery. Dr. Braxton will evaluate the patient’s condition thoroughly, including identifying the targeted location and cause of the pain, before determining the correct treatment course. Dr. Braxton uses advanced surgical techniques designed to help patients recover from lumbar degenerative disc disease and return to their preferred activities.

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