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Spine Surgery Guide

Exams and Tests for Degenerative Disc

It can be difficult to diagnose degenerative disc disease because it develops so gradually and can have a multitude of related problems (spinal stenosis, herniated disc, etc.). For example, your doctor may be able to quickly diagnose you with a herniated disc, but it's more challenging to diagnose that it's a herniated disc caused by degenerative disc disease.

If you have back or neck pain that comes on suddenly, or if you have pain that persists, call your spine specialist. (If you don't already have a spine specialist, you can find one using our Find a Back and Spine Specialist feature.) Your doctor will try to find the cause of your pain so that he or she can develop an accurate treatment plan for you—a way to manage your pain and other symptoms of degenerative disc disease and to help you recover.
Your spine specialist will also perform physical and neurological exams. In the physical exam, your doctor will observe your posture, range of motion (how well and how far you can move certain joints), and physical condition, noting any movement that causes you pain. Your doctor will feel your spine, note its curvature and alignment, and feel for muscle spasms.

During the neurological exam, your spine specialist will test your reflexes, muscle strength, other nerve changes, and pain spread (that is—does your pain travel from your back and into other parts of your body?). The neurological exam is especially important in degenerative disc disease because it can affect your nerves or even your spinal cord.

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Making a degenerative disc disease diagnosis can require additional tests, such as:
  • Bone scan: To help your doctor detect spinal problems such as osteoarthritis, fractures, or infections (which can all be related to DDD), you may have a bone scan. You will have a very small amount of radioactive material injected into a blood vessel. That will travel through your blood stream and be absorbed by your bones. More radioactive material will be absorbed by an area where there is abnormal activity-such as an inflammation. A scanner can detect the amount of radiation in all your bones and show the "hot spots" (the areas with more radioactive material) to help your doctor figure out where the problem is.

  • Discogram or discography: This is a procedure that confirms or denies the disc(s) as the source of your pain. You will have a harmless dye injected into one of your discs. If there's a problem with your disc—like it's herniated—the dye will leak out of the disc. The doctor will be able to see that on an x-ray, and that will show him/her that there's something wrong with your disc.

  • Myelogram: To see if you have a spinal canal or spinal cord disorder—perhaps nerve compression causing pain and weakness—you may have a myelogram. In this test, you'll have a special dye injected into the area around your spinal cord and nerves. (Before that happens, the area will be numbed.) Then you'll have an x-ray or a CT scan. The image will provide a detailed anatomic picture of your spine, especially of the bones, that will help your doctor to identify any abnormalities.

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This information is not designed to replace a physician's independent judgment about the appropriateness or risks of a procedure for a given patient.
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