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Stages of Degenerative Disc Disease

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What are the Stages of Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease affects millions of people worldwide — and is the most common reason people have surgery of the spine. Sometimes known as DDD, degenerative disc disease occurs when the discs — the fibrous cushions that absorb shock between the vertebral bones in the spine — begin to break down or change shape. This can happen as a result of sports or other activities over a long period of time, or simply because some people experience dehydration of their spinal discs (which normally are 80% water).

Your spinal discs fulfill a vital role in the health of your spine and in your ongoing mobility and activity level, and if you're suffering from degenerative disc disorder, we know how painful and worrying this can be. 

Fortunately, help is at hand. At JAG Physical Therapy, our team members are regional experts in treating degenerative disc disease, offering tailored treatment plans specific to your needs, to help with spinal pain management and put you on the path to recovery.

Reach out to us to learn more, schedule your appointment, or find one of our over 100 JAG PT locations near you in New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania.

The Four Stages of Degenerative Disc Disease

Medical professionals recognize four main stages of degenerative disc disease, beginning with the mildest form and becoming progressively more severe. They can result in pain, degenerative scoliosis, and loss of mobility. The four main stages of degenerative disc disease are the Dysfunction Stage, the Dehydration Stage, the Stabilization Stage, and the Collapsing Stage.

Dysfunction Stage (Stage 1)

  • Spine loses protection from shock and forceful motion
  • Vertebrae begin to lose natural curvature
  • Mild back pain, neck pain, or general discomfort

At the onset of degenerative disc disease, the affected disc or discs begin to cease functioning as they should. A common characteristic is that your spine is no longer adequately protected from shock and force of movement, as the discs lose their strength. 

However, this is just one of the essential functions of your spinal discs. They also provide support and structure to the spine, giving your vertebrae their natural curvature. If your discs are becoming dysfunctional, this natural curvature may become warped and misaligned. 

Signs of degeneration to the spine are often challenging to recognize. You may experience mild back pain, neck pain, or general discomfort, but you may not notice any difference in your spine. However, when a healthcare professional evaluates you, they'll carefully identify any irregularities and provide a diagnosis. Dysfunction can begin acutely — i.e., you feel your back suddenly “give” — or it can come from wear and tear over time.

While over-the-counter pain relievers might be helpful in this early stage, JAG PT's spine specialists can provide true treatment with chiropractic care and alternative therapy.

Dehydration Stage (Stage 2)

  • Continued loss of function
  • Moderate back pain, neck pain, or discomfort
  • Noticeable spinal deformity
  • Disc dehydration
  • Bone spurs

Spinal discs will continue their loss of function and degradation during this stage, and the symptoms will likely grow more severe. The mild pain and discomfort you may have noticed in Stage 1 will begin to increase until back pain is a regular feature of your day-to-day life.

At this stage, you may also begin to notice visible spinal deformities. The discs in the affected area may start to bulge in some cases as they are pushed outwards by the decentralized pressure on the spine. In other instances, discs may become thinner as they dehydrate, offering little to no protection to the spine's bones.

As the bones are no longer protected, they will begin to bear the brunt of the force placed upon the spine. When this happens, bone spurs may begin to appear as the bones themselves grow increasingly deformed.

Stabilization Stage (Stage 3)

  • Severe pain
  • Muscle aches and stiffness
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Difficulty moving

As DDD continues to progress, the spine attempts to counteract the damage by restabilizing itself. Osteophytes are formed during this stage. Also, spinal stenosis, or a narrowing of the space in the spinal column, occurs as your body seeks to develop a more stable spinal base.

The pain you experienced in Stage 2 is likely to become more severe during Stage 3. However, this pain may peak and then begin to subside as the spine stabilizes. You may also experience muscular aches and stiffness, and you will find that it becomes increasingly difficult to move during Stage 3.

It is important to note that stabilization is an emergency response triggered within your body. This process isn't your body “fixing” the degenerated disc. Instead, it's a sign of your body compensating for the loss of disc function.

At any point up to and including Stage 3, disc degeneration is classed as moderate. While the symptoms and treatment of Stages 1–3 are sometimes vastly different, these three stages all fall under the umbrella term of moderate disc degeneration.

So, as long as your condition has not progressed beyond Stage 3, the rate of disc degeneration is still considered reversible. Your JAG physical therapist can apply treatments and techniques to help your spine heal and regain a good level of function. However, after Stage 3, it becomes more challenging to reverse the process.

Collapsing Stage (Stage 4)

  • Severe pain
  • Collapse

In the final stage of DDD, the spinal discs become dangerously thin and may become herniated, collapsed, and/or disintegrated. The severe pain felt during this stage often results from bone rubbing against bone or from herniated discs pushing into nerves.

And because there is no protective layer between the bones of the spine, nerve damage can occur. The bones may even begin to fuse as the body works to compensate for the lack of a protective disc.

Stage 4 is considered severe DDD because it is challenging or impossible to reverse in many cases. 

It may still be possible to treat the condition and improve your quality of life though. Typically, treatment will involve some physical activity and exercises to reduce pain levels.

How Fast Does Degenerative Disc Disease Progress?

The speed of DDD's progression will be different from case to case. In cases involving older patients, or those with pre-existing spinal conditions, degeneration may be more rapid. Further injury to the spine — for instance, if you ignore the symptoms and keep putting pressure on the bones in the back — may also accelerate DDD.

Degenerative disc disease is a progressive condition, which will worsen over time if left untreated.

After complete disc generation, the bones of the spine will begin to fuse. As a result, you could experience a loss of posture and mobility in the back or even permanent deformity.

Start Your DDD Treatment as Soon as You Can, with JAG PT

Don't let DDD interfere with your daily activities, and don't let the condition get out of hand. JAG Physical Therapy’s spinal specialists are highly experienced and trained to help patients with degenerative disc disease. We’re available in your area to provide the treatment you need for a healthier, more active, and pain free life.

See a Physical Therapist to Treat or Prevent Degenerative Disc Disease

JAG PT has over 100 convenient clinic locations – no matter where you are in the tri-state area, there’s a JAG PT location near you and ready to help. Or, our teletherapy program can provide you with convenient DDD rehabilitation in the comfort of your home. Don’t delay – find your nearest location or book a teletherapy appointment.