Degenerative Disc Disease and Sciatica

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

  • Medical Editor: Catherine Burt Driver, MD
    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD, is board certified in internal medicine and rheumatology by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Dr. Driver is a member of the American College of Rheumatology. She currently is in active practice in the field of rheumatology in Mission Viejo, Calif., where she is a partner in Mission Internal Medical Group.

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Sciatica Pictures Slideshow: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

What causes degenerative disc disease?

As we age, the water and protein content of the cartilage of the body changes. This change results in weaker, more fragile, and thin cartilage. Because both the discs and the joints that stack the vertebrae (facet joints) are partly composed of cartilage, these areas are subject to wear and tear over time (degenerative changes). The gradual deterioration of the disc between the vertebrae is referred to as degenerative disc disease, sometimes abbreviated DDD. Wear of the facet cartilage and the bony changes of the adjacent joint is referred to as degenerative facet joint disease or osteoarthritis of the spine. Trauma injury to the spine can also lead to degenerative disc disease.

Degeneration of the disc space and its contents is medically referred to as spondylosis. Spondylosis can be noted on X-ray tests or MRI scanning of the spine as a narrowing of the normal "disc space" between the adjacent vertebrae.

What are the symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

Degeneration of the disc tissue makes the disc more susceptible to herniation. Degeneration of the disc can cause local pain in the affected area. Any level of the spine can be affected by disc degeneration. When disc degeneration affects the spine of the neck, it is referred to as cervical disc disease. When the mid-back is affected, the condition is referred to as thoracic disc disease. Disc degeneration that affects the lumbar spine can cause low back pain (referred to as lumbago) or irritation of a spinal nerve to cause pain radiating down the leg (sciatica). Lumbago causes pain localized to the low back and is common in older people. Degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) of the facet joints that can be detected with plain X-ray testing is also a cause of localized lumbar pain. The pain from degenerative disc or joint disease of the spine is usually treated conservatively with intermittent heat, rest, rehabilitative exercises, and medications to relieve pain, muscle spasm, and inflammation.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/6/2015

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