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What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

03 April 2019

Everyone has a sore back every once in a while. Your spine and surrounding muscles are vulnerable to injury and strain from many different sources, like sitting too long in one spot, turning too quickly and pulling a muscle or lifting something incorrectly.

But what if your back pain is caused by something from within the spine itself? This can happen in a condition called degenerative disc disease.

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

According to Johns Hopkins University, degenerative disc disease is a type of arthritis. The cause is not clearly understood, but it is generally accepted that at as people age, they will likely develop some level of degeneration in their discs.

Our spine is made up of bony vertebrae stacked on top of one another with tough, rubbery shock absorbers, called discs, in between. These discs help the spine flex and twist and keep the bones from rubbing directly on each other.

In degenerative disc disease, the fluid that fills the middle of these discs decreases, and the bones of the spine make contact, causing inflammation and possibly resulting in bone spurs and discomfort.


How do you know if you have degenerative disc disease? Some people may have it and experience no symptoms at all, but other people have pain frequently, accompanied by numbness or tingling called paresthesia. This happens when the bones of the spine are compressing some of the nerves of the spinal cord because of the loss in the size of the disc.

Other symptoms, according to Cedars-Sinai include:

  • Pain that gets worse with sitting, but improves when changing positions often, or walking.
  • Muscle weakness or foot drop.
  • Periods of severe pain that get worse and then get better after a few days to a few months.

The condition is usually diagnosed based on your symptoms and an imaging study such as an X-ray, MRI or CT scan. Additionally, other tests can be done to confirm the nerves that are running through the collapsed discs are able to transmit signals properly.

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment?

According to Johns Hopkins, the first line of treatment for this condition is to manage the pain and reduce inflammation. This is typically done with rest, heat/cold therapy like ice packs, and heating pads and anti-inflammatory medications, including steroid injections.

Physical therapy can also help to increase the range of motion. A sit-to-stand desk may also be a consideration if you are experiencing back pain at work, and need to change positions frequently. For more serious cases, there are some surgical options to remove bone spurs or even fuse vertebrae together to reduce pain and prevent nerve damage. Johns Hopkins also recommends that individuals concerned with degenerative disc disease take good care of their spine by lifting things properly.

Other good ideas to support the health of your spine are to practice good body mechanics, maintain an ergonomic workspace to prevent back pain at work and to stay active with physical exercise as directed by your physician.