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It's a scary-sounding diagnosis. But don't panic if you learn you have "degenerative disc disease." In spite of its name, it's not actually a disease, and it doesn't inevitably worsen over time.
"The normal process by which discs change as we age is simply called 'degeneration.' So everyone experiences it to some degree during their lifetime," says Gregory Lopez, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Rush.
As we age, our discs start to dry and shrink. In some cases, these changes lead to ruptured — or herniated — discs, instability in the spine, and/or narrowing of the spinal canal.
The good news: Symptoms don't typically progress.
"A diagnosis in your 30s or 40s doesn't mean you'll be in a wheelchair by 70," says Matthew Colman, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Rush. "In fact, with aging, the degenerative process sometimes burns out to a point where it causes less pain."
And taking steps to manage symptoms and keep your spine and back healthy can help you stay mobile and active throughout your life.
A healthy lifestyle not only improves symptoms, it can actually slow the degenerative process. That's why Lopez and Colman recommend the following:
Along with lifestyle changes and physical therapy, your doctor may prescribe medications to minimize painful flareups, including the following:
In addition to increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, lung disease and cancer, smoking cigarettes can significantly affect disc health and speed the rate of degeneration.
"Most people feel and function better once symptoms are treated by nonsurgical means and they have learned and committed to proper self-care," Lopez explains.
If your pain isn't improving or your symptoms are affecting your quality of life, however, your doctor may recommend surgery:
"There are many ways to address the symptoms resulting from disc degeneration," says Colman. "The key is to determine what's causing your symptoms and work with your spine specialist to find the right approach for you."
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