Health

Living with Degenerative Disc Disease

posted by Julie November 20, 2017 2 Comments

I have degenerative disc disease.

I do not have a herniated disc. (See a previous post.)

Just with one x-ray, an orthopedic surgeon diagnosed me with a lifelong condition. No MRIs, no CT scans. Just one simple x-ray and an exam. Of course, what made it worse, was that this doctor didn’t show any empathy, compassion, or provide helpful ways to manage my pain. What I thought was a small issue that simply needed time and treatment to heal, had become in moments, a condition I was going to learn to live with. I was simply given prescriptions for an anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy, and sent on my way.

So I froze. With glazed eyes and a motionless face, I walked to my car.

While walking in the parking lot, my mind was racing with thoughts: I should get a second opinion. This doctor was so insensitive. How did this happen? Do I need surgery? I have a disease? Am I going to be in pain forever? How can I live this way?  I didn’t make it to the car before the tears started. I was damaged, my body was broken, and my spirit was shattered.

degenerative disc disease lower back pain L5 S1

A degenerative disc and an affected nerve. Note the proper amount of spacing between vertebrae and healthy discs.

My Story

Earlier this year, I saw a chiropractor for a suspected bulging or herniated disc and wrote a blog post about it.  In addition to getting two chiropractic treatments a week, I purchased an inversion table to help take some of the weight off my discs for a few minutes a day, hoping to ease my pain. I later wrote a follow-up post to let my readers know if the inversion table was really helping.

Several months before this, when my pain first started, I simply thought my hip (sacroiliac joint) was just out of whack. After all, I felt like I was relatively young to have any serious back issues; I only just turned 40 this year! I’m also someone who works out 4 days a week and considers myself relatively fit. However, after dealing with on and off tingling in my legs for many months, I decided to see a chiropractor. After a couple of months of treatment, I was better, but not by much. I stopped visiting the chiropractor and hoped that regular use of the inversion table would allow the disc to fully heal and relieve my pain.

About six months later, still with back pain and occasional numbness in my leg, I decided to see an orthopedic surgeon. It was here I had the x-rays done and received my diagnosis of degenerative disc disease (DDD).

 

The disc that’s causing my pain lies between L5 and S1, which seems to be the most common place in the spine to have problems.

degenerative disc disease lower back pain L5 S1

This is what “normal” spacing looks like between the 5th lumbar vertebrae and the 1st sacral vertebrae. Compare this to the small gap in my x-ray.

 

The pain and subsequent numbness and tingling in my lower extremities is the result of nerve irritation.  Any single movement can bring me weeks of pain. Any twist, bending, or simple activity involving my lower back can cause a flare up. As a result, I have to be cautious everyday. Anytime I bend to lift something, I have to be careful; and lifting with my legs doesn’t always work because I have very bad knees. However, the worst thing about this problem is the pain; when it’s bad, it’s crippling enough to make the toughest person weep.

 

Looking Ahead

Learning to live with something that will never go away is difficult to deal with mentally. It’s something I’ve never had to experience. It didn’t help that my physician didn’t give me a complete description of my diagnosis, nor reassurance that I would be ok. It would have been helpful if he had told me this was fairly common, that it’s not a “disease” (but rather a condition), and that all people experience disc degeneration in the spine as they age (although with varying degrees of degeneration, most without pain).

degenerative disc disease lower back pain L5 S1

What a degenerated disc looks like

 

As we age, water is lost from our spinal discs. The hard outside or “shell” of the disc weakens, which lets the water leak out. This ‘dehydration’ of the disc affects the stability of the spine, which causes pain. In addition, any disruption of normalcy to the spine or injury to the disc itself (including inflammation) will disrupt the nerves and muscles surrounding the affected area. That’s why we have pain, muscle spasms, and/or numbness and tingling.

I was surprised to learn that I had bone spurs on a few vertebrae. The doctor told me that this was a key symptom of DDD. When tissues are damaged or inflamed, sometimes bone spurs show up in nearby bones (since bones are always repairing themselves). Doctors believe these bone spurs grow over time to compensate for the smaller disc space, to help stop excess spinal motion, and to help the spine stabilize itself properly, now with a thinner disc.

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with DDD, know that you won’t be in pain forever. Despite being named “degenerative disc disease”, the “degeneration” does not progress, getting worse over time. In fact, I learned that pain from the thinned disc usually gets better over time because the spine learns to stabilize that affected area. Also, inflammatory proteins in the disc will eventually wear out and stop irritating the nerves. Relief is in sight!

After learning all of this, I look back on the day of my diagnosis and realize that I may have overreacted. However, in my defense, I knew nothing about DDD and didn’t understand my prognosis. I was expecting an easy fix and did not get the answer I was expecting.

degenerative disc disease lower back pain L5 S1

Inversion in action

So, for now, it’s stretching, PT, anti-inflammatory meds when necessary, staying active, bending over smartly, limiting my physical activity, and the occasional session on the inversion table. I did also purchase a new bed which I believe has helped; it’s much firmer and provides better support for my spine.

Learning to live with any health condition is a slow process. You have to learn to adapt your lifestyle around the problem and realize that you and your body do come first! After all, we only get one body.

Have you been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease? How did you handle it? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Travels and Cheers to Your Health!

Julie

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Degenerative Disc Disease

 

 

 

sources: spine-health.com, wikipedia.org

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Information provided on this web site is for general information purposes only.

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2 Comments

Lewis November 22, 2017 at 8:41 am

I’m 34, and it was extremely hard to hear when diagnosed with DDD. I reacted the same way myself, thought I was permanently damaged, and took days/weeks of research to realize there was nothing permanent about it.
My orthopedic surgeon recommended a microdiscectomy for my L5-S1 bulging/ruptured/herniated/extruded disc (so many seemingly interchangeable terms!). It’s been 9 days since my surgery, and my leg and foot symptoms are at least 90% better. The wound from surgery is the only real source of pain, and it’s steadily decreasing everyday.
I was in the hospital a total of 9 hours. Walked in at 9:00 am, and walked out at 6:00 pm (I was a little frustrated because I felt well enough to walk out by 2:00pm).
Even the morning of surgery, I was still having doubts that I was doing the right thing. By the evening after the procedure, all I felt was relief, and finally knew I’d made the right choice.
By day 6, I was able to walk a mile and a half fairly easily, and can also spend several hours a day on my feet.
Hoping to get back on the inversion table as soon as the surgeon clears me, I suspect it can still be a valuable part of the recovery process for the month or two I have left till being ‘good as new’. And I hope it can help prevent future disc problems too.
I wish you luck, and hope you find the best option for your full recovery from this awful condition. I highly recommend the microdiscectomy if the physical therapy route doesn’t give you enough relief. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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Julie November 22, 2017 at 11:52 am

Thank you so much for sharing your story! It’s comforting to know I’m not alone. 🙂 I’m so glad to hear that you’re already SO much better! That’s amazing to hear. Fortunately, I am progressing pretty well, and I do my best to not irritate or aggravate the condition, but that’s not always possible. I’m happy to know that there is a common procedure (and day surgery too!) that can help, if I ever get to that point. I appreciate you leaving your comments! Best of luck on your continued recovery. 🙂

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