Degenerative Disc Disease
Do you have Degenerative Disc Disease? Find out what your pain means—in a few painless clicks.
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Throughout your life you have probably heard the terms bulging, herniated, or slipped disc. Another name for these conditions is degenerative disc disease. Our intervertebral discs are rubber spacer-like objects that reside between our spinal vertebrae and fulfill several vital functions.
First and foremost, our spinal discs act as shock absorbers, permitting our spinal vertebrae to absorb vertical or horizontal forces without knocking into one another and cracking. Without this shock absorbing capability, humans wouldn’t be able to engage in any moderately athletic activity; and our spinal vertebrae would also wear down extremely quickly—like a bone that’s missing all of its ligaments.
Spinal discs also act as spacers between the bones in our spine, reserving room for nerves to radiate outward from our spinal cord to our arms and legs. If we didn’t have this space between our vertebrae, our nerves would have nowhere to go.
As time goes by, our intervertebral discs lose their ability to hold water. Their spongy, cushioned texture starts to deflate or crack, pinching down on nerves and decreasing the shock absorption between our vertebrae. Unfortunately, this natural consequence of aging often results in excruciating pain and decreased spinal mobility.
Individuals with degenerative disc disease are more likely to develop the following co-occurring conditions:
- Herniated Discs: A degenerated disc becomes progressively brittle with time. As micro-tears appear in the exterior of the disc and the disc itself loses its shape, the internal pressures inside the disc will build. A sudden movement like a forceful cough or sneeze may cause a compromised disc to herniate, instantaneously and painfully rupturing.
- Spinal Stenosis: Similarly, a degenerated, bulging, or herniated disc can restrict the space that is typically reserved for the spinal cord. Narrowing of the spinal canal—known as spinal stenosis—causes pinched nerve pain, progressive weakening of the arms and legs, and global balance disturbances.
- Facet Joint Disease or Osteoarthritis: Degenerative disc disease can trigger or advance the progression of spinal osteoarthritis. When an intervertebral disc collapses, the facet joints—which line the backside of the spine and permit for spinal flexibility—may grind painfully against one another, wearing away at the cartilage that typically serves to protect these joints.
- Spondylolisthesis (Slipped Vertebra): A degenerated disc also affects the structural integrity of the spine as a whole. A weakened or herniated disc may permit an adjacent vertebra to slip out of place, disrupting the alignment of the spine and generating excruciating pain.
Are you worried that your symptoms could signify degenerative disc disease? Dr. Frazier—spine surgeon, Harvard graduate, and published author on spine disorders—has over 20 years of surgical experience in resolving degenerated disc pain!
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What are the Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?
Although the word “degenerative” implies that Degenerative Disc Disease is a progressive disorder that will worsen over time, this is not strictly the case. Instead, Degenerative Disc Disease refers to the set of symptoms that result from the deterioration of a single intervertebral disc. Warning signs of degenerative disc disease may include:
- Sciatica: Random episodes of severe pain, which radiates from the location of the worn-out disc in the lumbar spine of the lower back and into the limbs
- Cervical Radiculopathy: Tingling pain that emanates from a degenerated disc in the cervical spine of the neck and into your shoulders or arms; Cervical radiculopathy may interfere with your ability to sleep or disrupt your hand-eye coordination
- Activity-Specific Pain: Intermittent pain that is aggravated by specific activities; for example: a lumbar degenerated disc may cause pain while rotating the spine; lifting a heavy object; or bending forward at the waist. A cervical degenerated disc may render glancing over the shoulder or raising the chin extremely difficult.
- Pain with Inactivity: Pain that intensifies with prolonged inactivity; for example: sitting for extended periods of time at a desk
- Reduced Mobility: Decreased mobility from diminished flexibility of the spine and/or chronic pain; A limited range of pain-free motion may also affect the arms and legs (gross motor skills) or the refined movements of the hands and fingers (fine motor skills)
- Emergency Symptoms: Contact emergency medical services immediately if your pain becomes debilitating or your symptoms include loss of bowel or bladder control, paralysis, or unrelenting numbness in your buttocks and legs.
Do these symptoms sound a little too familiar? Our board certified spine specialist, Dr. Frazier, has been recognized as a “Super Doctor” by the New York Times Magazine for his commitment to patient-first care. With Dr. Frazier’s expertise and compassionate care at your disposal, you can rest assured that the health of your spine lies in good hands!
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What are the Treatments for Degenerative Disc Disease?
Before considering surgical options to repair a degenerated disc—and under normal, non-emergency circumstances—a qualified spine specialist will prescribe a combination of activity modifications and pain management techniques. These noninvasive interventions, which enable many individuals to avoid the need for surgery altogether, often include: Bed rest; non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory, or pain relievers to ease acute discomfort; at-home stretching exercises; or a regimen physical therapy or chiropractic care.
Individuals who suffer from severe degenerative disc disease and fail to witness satisfactory improvements in their condition after 6 months of conservative treatment may qualify for surgical intervention. In these rare instances, our Harvard-educated, board certified surgeon, Dr. Frazier, has over 20 years of surgical experience with DDD and may recommend:
- Artificial Disc Replacement (ACD): A sophisticated procedure to treat degenerative disc disease, this minimally invasive technique involves removal and replacement of a damaged intervertebral disc with an artificial model. Instead of hindering the motion of your neck with an unnecessary fusion procedure, an ACD allows you to retain normal range of motion in your spine.
- TLIF: TLIF stands for Transforaminal Lumbar Discectomy with Interbody Fusion. Although a TLIF is a spinal fusion procedure, this minimally invasive technique—unlike traditional lumbar fusion surgeries—is performed through a 1-inch incision. This method enables your surgeon to extract degenerated disc material, with minimal scarring or tissue damage.
- Laminotomy: A laminotomy is a same-day or outpatient surgical procedure, in which your surgeon extracts the lamina—or bony posterior casing of an affected vertebra. Because your lamina serves as the sheath which contains your spinal cord, removal of the lamina allows for the decompression of pinched nerve tissue that results from a degenerated or herniated disc.
Although these procedures represent three of the most common surgical interventions for degenerative disc disease, Dr. Frazier is skilled in the many nuances of orthopedic care. With nearly 20 years of surgical experience in providing outstanding patient outcomes and award-winning care, Dr. Frazier customizes each of his procedures to fit the medical and lifestyle needs of his patients.
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Dr. Frazier is a Harvard-trained, board certified orthopedic spine surgeon. He’s held an academic appointment at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and New York’s SUNY Downstate. Dr. Frazier is also a respected lecturer, accomplished researcher, published author on spine disorders and treatment, and a consultant for several international spine companies.
After completing his undergraduate education at Brown University, Dr. Frazier attended Harvard Medical School, where he graduated cum laude. He completed a Harvard internship based at the New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston, MA, followed by a Harvard combined residency before becoming chief resident at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Education & Training
MD / Cum Laude
Harvard Medical School
Mass. General Hospital
Spinal Deformity Fellowship
Doctor’s Hospital (Miami, FL)