One of the most common diagnoses given for low back pain is degenerative disc disease. The term lumbar degenerative disc disease is actually a misnomer. The degeneration of the disc is not a disease process but rather a normal part of aging. While everyone’s discs do degenerate, not everyone experiences symptoms such as pain. Others do experience severe pain and wonder if the pain will continue to worsen with age.
To address the question of whether pain will increase as the degeneration of the disc worsens, the answer is not necessarily. The degeneration of the disc is an ongoing process that worsens with time, but does not imply that the pain associated with disc degeneration progresses as well. The pain level associated with degenerative disc disease varies by individual.
The progress of disc degeneration is dictated by many factors including: genetics, nutrition, lifestyle, occupation and injury to the lower back. For example, the progression of degenerative disc disease in those individuals who hold jobs involving a lot of twisting or who are exposed to vibrations from operating heavy machinery may be more severe. Again, the level of pain associated with degeneration is different from person to person.
Those degenerated discs that do become painful can cause low back pain, leg pain or both. Low back pain can result from several processes that occur. Low back pain can occur as a result of the following:
- Inflammation of the inner (nuclear) material on the outer (annular) fibers that break down and develop nerve fibers in them as they begin to heal.
- “Micromotion Instability” – here the degeneration can allow the disc to move ever so slightly causing pain.
- Herniated Discs – degeneration can lead to herniated discs. This causes pain when the herniated material comes in contact with surrounding nerve roots.
There are several highly effective, low risk treatments that are available to treat both low back pain and leg pain resulting from painful disc degeneration. These treatments, in combination with physical rehabilitation can help minimize pain and maintain function. In many cases these treatments can decrease or avoid the need for habit forming pain relieving medications as well as prevent or delay the need for surgery. In the event that surgery is unavoidable, there are several minimally invasive surgical options that by minimizing the trauma of surgery can greatly decrease postoperative discomfort and dramatically shorten recovery time.