doctor observing degenerative disc disease

When Does Degenerative Disc Disease Require Surgery?

One day, after getting out of bed or bending down to pick something up, you may notice pain in your lower back. “Everyone feels back pain when they get older,” you might think. “It’s just something I’ll have to live with, like wearing reading glasses.”

But what if that nagging ache is actually degenerative disc disease—and how do you know if you’ll need surgery for it?

First things first: degenerative disc disease is actually not a “disease,” at least not in the way we talk about heart disease or illnesses that are contagious. Degenerative disc disease is caused by a spinal disc wearing down, which leads to pain in the neck or lower back. Discs appear between each of the bony vertebrae of the spine and act as a protective shock absorber for the area.

Extra wear and tear, an injury, or some illnesses can cause problems with discs, but they often dry out and shrink on their own as you age. Forty percent of people older than 40 suffer from degenerative disc disease, and that number increases to 80 percent of people older than 80.1

The state of your degenerative disc disease will vary based on several factors, especially where you’re feeling pain and other symptoms, the severity of those symptoms, and how long they last. Sometimes simple treatments that can help include:

  • Rest
  • Sleeping in a specific position or with a special pillow
  • Exercise
  • Massage or physical therapy
  • Pain relief medications

In some cases, you might receive an injection of a steroid to reduce inflammation around the affected area.

If you continue to experience pain (usually after six months), however, you may have another condition related to degenerative disc disease, including:

  • Spinal stenosis, when the spaces within your spine tighten and put pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine
  • Myelopathy, when the spinal cord is compressed
  • Radiculopathy, a pinched nerve in the spine that may cause weakness, numbness, or tingling

In these cases, your condition may require surgery. With extensive training in surgical procedures for several spine disorders and conditions, Dr. Woodall offers treatment options in the Athens area for your degenerative disc disease.

Examples of surgical procedures for degenerative disc disease include:

  • Discectomy, the most common treatment for degenerative disc disease, is surgery to remove the damaged part of the disc. (“Ectomy” means the surgical removal of something.) This may relieve pressure on the affected nerve. This is usually a minimally invasive procedure, meaning it requires smaller incisions than “open” surgery. The procedure may be also be known as:
    • Cervical spine discectomy, If the surgery takes place in the cervical spine (vertebrae in your neck)
    • lumbar spine discectomy, if the surgery occurs in the lumbar spine (vertebrae in the lower back) 
  • Spinal fusion is designed to protect the spine by placing bone or bonelike material inside the space between two spinal vertebrae. Space is created in a discectomy to relieve pressure, but space can cause weakness or instability in the spine. By fusing (connecting) the vertebrae, the spine is protected and stable, but there may be a loss of mobility, depending on the location of the fusion and the severity of your condition.
  • Artificial disc replacement is an alternative to fusion if you meet certain requirements: usually under the age of 60, not excessively overweight, other aspects of your medical history such as having osteoporosis. As the name of the surgery describes, your damaged disc is replaced by a new artificial disc that will allow you to have more mobility than with spinal fusion surgery. 

It should be noted that surgical treatments for degenerative disc disease may reduce but not eliminate all your back pain. Dr. Woodall will discuss your options based on your specific case.