Understanding Degenerative Disc Disease: Causes, Symptoms, and Management Strategies

Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) represents a natural progression of spinal disc wear and tear associated with ageing, but its impact on quality of life can be significant. This condition not only challenges day-to-day functioning but also poses a particular threat to athletes engaged in high-impact sports. From identifying early symptoms such as back or neck pain to exploring preventive measures, this article delves into the complexities of DDD. We will dissect the causes, prevalent symptoms, the risk factors within competitive sports, and most importantly, the practical steps you can take to manage and minimise the discomfort associated with this widespread condition.

What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease occurs when there is a wearing down of your spinal discs. These discs are cushions between your vertebrae and act as shock absorbers to help you move, bend and twist comfortably. This degeneration is a normal process as a function of ageing but is to be prolonged as much as possible for healthy living.

When the discs wear away friction between bones occurs through rubbing together, and this can cause:

  • Scoliosis (spinal curving)
  • Herniated disc (bulged, slipped or ruptured disc)
  • Stenosis (a narrowing of the spine causing increased pressure on the spinal cord)

 Typically, DDD occurs when your discs:

  • Dry out (the disc contains water which degenerates over time, causing disks to thin)
  • Tear or crack (minor injuries; direct blow, sports participation, improper lifting)

What are the symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

The symptoms for DDD are simply neck and back pain. You may experience pain that comes and goes, leads to numbness or tingling, radiates down your buttocks and lower back, or worsens when sitting, bending or lifting.

How do I identify whether I have degenerative disc disease or not?

With injuries, it is typically important to be able to ask yourself some investigative questions to determine the initial severity and monitor change over time. Here are a few examples:

  • When does the pain start?
  • Where do I feel pain?
  • What activities cause the most pain?
  • What activities decrease the pain?
  • Did I have an instance or accident that led to pain?
  • What symptoms do I have (look above)?

 If you have access, utilising imaging scans such as X-ray or MRI can also provide a clearer picture on the severity and location of your issue.

Prevalence of degenerative disc disease in competitive sport

Unfortunately, DDD is increasingly more common in those competing in competitive sport. For example, cervical spine DDD has been found to occur 10 to 20 years sooner in soccer players, and believed to be due to the repeated low and high impact actions that soccer participants incur (Kartal et al., 2004). Spinal abnormalities including DDD has also been found to be more common in young footballers (89%) compared to controls (54%) (Witwit et al., 2020). However, it is not only contact sports like soccer that have such a prevalence. In a research study conducted in 2016, Abdalkader et al. (2020) discovered DDD to be present in up to 40% of the athletes tested prior to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Reasons for degenerative disc disease in competitive sport

Disc degeneration is typically found to occur through rotational stress occurring in actions such as running, kicking, twisting, cutting and diving. Therefore, it can be believed that DDD is more likely in sports and positions whereby these actions occur the most, such as goalkeeping in soccer, golf players, or long distance running.

In addition, incorrect exercise technique during activities such as weightlifting have also been found to increase the risk of DDD (Gerbino & D’Hemecourt, 2002)

These instances have also been found to be heightened when athletes poorly warm up, have a genetic history of inheritance, or have poor strength or flexibility.

What should I do to avoid degenerative disc disease or minimise my “flare ups”?

The bad news is that you cannot repair DDD as it is degenerative. The good news is that you can reduce your chances of getting DDD and also the frequency and intensity of your symptoms with appropriate exercise intervention.

Short-term resolutions:

  • Hot and cold therapy
  • Low impact exercise with reduction in gravitational compression such as swimming

Long-term resolutions:

  • Strengthening – to improve your own controllable shock absorbers of the body (soft-tissue) to reduce the impact on your spinal column during exercise and daily activity.
  • Stretching – to improve posture around the spine
  • Body composition – excess weight (body fat) places an increased and unnecessary load on the joints of the body. A suitable exercise intervention to improve body composition may be suitable after assessment.

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