Degenerative disc disease (DDD) isn't actually a "disease." Instead, it's a term that describes changes in the disc-shaped structures that sit between the bones (vertebrae) of the spine. Most often age-related, these changes cause the discs to lose function, sometimes leading to painful conditions such as nerve impingement.
Board-certified neurosurgeon Dr. Patrick Doherty and our team at Yale Neurosurgery New London specialize in countering the effects of painful spinal conditions like DDD with treatments designed to fit your needs.
Ranging from physical therapy and other conservative treatments to state-of-the-art minimally invasive spine surgery with a robotic assist, our goal is to relieve your pain, increase mobility, and improve your overall quality of life.
For this month’s blog post, our team delves into cervical DDD and the treatments that help.
Understanding degenerative disc disease
Spinal discs usually have a rubbery outer layer surrounding a softer gel-like center. Sandwiched between the spinal vertebrae, discs act as cushions between the bones, helping absorb forces encountered with movement and stabilize the spine.
As you age, spinal discs naturally dry out, harden, and thin, decreasing their cushioning and stabilizing effects. Most people develop degenerative changes after age 40, which may or may not cause symptoms. Injury and repetitive motion during sports, work activities, or hobbies can accelerate the degenerative process.
Studies have also shown that increased use of phones, tablets, and other electronic devices can cause posture issues that may contribute to early degenerative changes in the cervical discs.
Degenerative disc disease can affect any region of the spine. However, it’s most often problematic in the spinal segments that move the most, the lumbar (lower back) and cervical (neck) areas.
Symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease
When DDD affects the cervical spine, symptoms can include:
Neck pain is often the most prominent symptom. It can range from a dull ache to a sharp or burning pain that can worsen with certain movements.
As discs degenerate, they can impinge on nearby nerves. This can cause pain to radiate into the shoulders, arms, hands, or head.
Weakness, numbness, and tingling
Nerve compression can lead to muscle weakness. You may also have numbness or a pins and needles sensation in the shoulders, arms, and hands.
Reduced range of motion
Neck stiffness and decreased range of motion is another common symptom of DDD.
Potential complications of cervical degenerative disc disease
Cervical DDD can lead to complications that may include herniated discs, bone spurs, spinal stenosis, and chronic pain and disability.
A herniated disc occurs when the outer layer of the disc cracks, allowing the inner gel-like substance to push out and press against surrounding nerves, leading to inflammation and pain.
Bone spurs and spinal stenosis
As DDD worsens, your body may try stabilizing the spine by producing additional bone (bone spurs). Depending on a bone spur’s location, size, and growth direction, it can cause stenosis (narrowing) of the spinal canal. This can pinch nearby nerves or compress the spinal cord.
Chronic pain and disability
Cervical DDD may initially cause pain that comes and goes, often with weeks to months between episodes. However, as the condition worsens, it can cause constant chronic pain and increasing disability.
Treating cervical degenerative disc disease
Dr. Doherty develops customized treatment strategies for cervical DDD that, depending on the severity, can range from conservative therapies to surgical correction.
Conservative therapies include:
- Physical therapy
- Pain medications
- Postural training
- Activity modification (like decreased screen time)
- Injections to reduce inflammation and pain
If conservative treatments fail, Dr. Doherty may recommend surgery, such as cervical discectomy or spinal fusion, to strengthen and stabilize the spine and relieve pain.
Dr. Doherty specializes in minimally invasive spine surgery, including robotic spine surgery, which often reduces healing time and minimizes postsurgical risks of bleeding and infection.
Schedule an appointment at Yale Neurosurgery New London today for assistance with cervical degenerative disc disease or other spinal conditions.