Degenerative disc disease does not affect everyone in the same way. One person may hardly notice symptoms, whereas another may need medication for serious pain. Doctors at NYU Langone determine the type of medication you need based on the results of diagnostic tests and your description of the type and location of pain.
Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs
When the body is injured, the immune system responds by sending specialized cells to repair damaged tissue. Part of this response is inflammation, which causes pain and swelling in soft tissues in the spine, such as nerves. Treating the inflammation with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may alleviate pain and swelling.
The most common NSAIDs are ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. All are available without a prescription, and your doctor can recommend how best to use them. If the pain is not relieved by over-the-counter medications, doctors may prescribe a more potent anti-inflammatory.
Prescription Pain Relievers
If a herniated disc pinches a nerve, or if bone growths form, narrowing the space in the spinal canal, the pain can be severe. Over-the-counter medications may help relieve pain, but if they don’t, your doctor may recommend a brief course of prescription pain relievers. These medications should only be used for a week, at most. They're intended to help you feel better until a muscle relaxant or anti-inflammatory medication starts to work.
If degeneration causes a disc to slip out of place and pinch a nerve, the electrical signals that move from the nerve to nearby muscle tissue may be disrupted, leading to painful muscle spasms. Muscle relaxant medications can calm spasms and ease pain, letting you move more easily.
Your doctor may prescribe these medications for a week or two. After that, pain caused by muscle spasms often goes away on its own.
If other medications don’t relieve your back or neck pain, your doctor may recommend corticosteroids, which are taken by mouth. Steroids reduce inflammation in the area near the injured disc, taking pressure off an affected nerve and relieving pain. Available by prescription, steroids are typically taken for 7 to 10 days, at which time your doctor reassesses your symptoms before recommending additional treatment.