ZocdocAnswersWhat are degenerative changes?

Question

What are degenerative changes?

I'm a middle aged man with a history of untreated back problems. I finally have been going to a doctor recently, and she's now saying that she wants to given me some kind of test to determin whether I have 'degenerative changes' to my discs. Can you explain what 'degenerative changes' mean when it comes to the back, and what it means I have them? Thanks.

Answer

Degenerative changes in the discs is also known as degenerative disc disease (DDD for short). This is a very common cause of chronic back pain in which the intervertebral discs (cartilage that sits between the vertebrae) begin to break down decreasing the distance between the vertebrae. It can also cause pain in the back that can radiate down to the legs or feet. The best test for detecting degenerative changes is an MRI, though DDD can be suggested by a simple x-ray. The MRI shows more detail and can possibly reveal another cause for you back pain. Degenerative disc disease is treated first with physical therapy and and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Some patients report improvement in symptoms with chiropractic manipulations, but this is not recommended by many doctors. There are surgical treatments that can be tried only after all other options have been exhausted. I suggest that you schedule an appointment with your primary care physician (or whoever was going to order the diagnostic imaging test). You can discuss the next step and what treatment options may be right for you in your situation. You may benefit from an orthopedic or rheumatologic consultation depending on the results of your imaging studies. Good luck.

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