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.

Low Back Pain Relief

Degenerative disc disease and sciatica facts

  • The discs of the spine serve as "cushions" between each vertebral segment.
  • The discs are designed somewhat like a jelly donut.
  • Degeneration (deterioration) of the disc makes the disc more susceptible to herniation (rupture), which can lead to localized or radiating pain.
  • Sciatica can result from disc herniation ("ruptured disc") when nerves in the low back are irritated.

How is the spine designed?

The vertebrae are the bony building blocks of the spine. Between each of the largest part of the vertebrae are the discs. Ligaments are situated around the spine and discs. The spine has seven vertebrae in the neck (cervical vertebrae), 12 vertebrae in the mid-back (thoracic vertebrae), and five vertebrae in the low back (lumbar vertebrae). In addition, in the mid-buttock beneath the fifth lumbar vertebra, are five sacral vertebrae - usually fused as the sacrum bone followed by the tailbone (coccyx).

What is the purpose of the spine and its discs?

The bony spine is designed so that vertebrae "stacked" together can provide a movable support structure. The spine also protects the spinal cord (nervous tissue that extends down the spinal column from the brain) from injury. Each vertebra has a a bony arch behind the spinal cord that shields the cord's nerve tissue. The vertebrae also have a strong bony "body" in front of the spinal cord to provide a platform suitable for weight-bearing.

The discs are pads that serve as "cushions" between each vertebral body that serve to minimize the impact of movement on the spinal column. Each disc is designed like a jelly donut with a central softer component (nucleus pulposus). With injury or degeneration, this softer component can sometimes rupture (herniate) through the surrounding outer ring (annulus fibrosus) and irritate adjacent nervous tissue. Ligaments are strong fibrous soft tissues that firmly attach bones to bones. Ligaments attach each of the vertebrae and surround each of the discs. When ligaments are injured as the disc degenerates, localized pain in the area affected can result.

Picture of herniated disc between L4 and L5
Picture of herniated disc between L4 and L5
Cross-section picture of herniated disc between L4 and L5
Cross-section picture of herniated disc between L4 and L5
Picture of stapled incision post-surgery
Picture of stapled incision post-surgery

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.

Quick GuideSciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Sciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

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.

What are the symptoms of radiculopathy and sciatica?

Radiculopathy refers to nerve irritation caused by damage to the disc between the vertebrae. This occurs because of degeneration ("wear and tear") of the outer ring of the disc or because of traumatic injury, or both. Weakness of the outer ring leads to disc bulging and disc herniation. As a result, the central softer portion of the disc can rupture through the outer ring of the disc and abut the spinal cord or its nerves as they exit the bony spinal column.

When nerves are irritated in the neck from degenerative disc disease, the condition is referred to as cervical radiculopathy. This can lead to painful burning or tingling sensations in the arms. When nerves are irritated in the low back from degenerative disc disease, the condition is called lumbar radiculopathy, and it often causes the commonly recognized "sciatica" pain that shoots down a lower extremity. This condition can be preceded by a localized low-back aching. Sciatica pain can follow a "popping" sensation at onset and be accompanied by numbness and tingling. The pain commonly increases with movements at the waist and can increase with coughing or sneezing. In more severe instances, lumbar radiculopathy can be accompanied by incontinence of the bladder and/or bowels.

How are degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, and sciatica diagnosed?

Degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, and sciatica are suspected when the symptoms described above are noted. The doctor can sometimes detect signs of irritated nerves during the examination. For example, increased radiating pain when the lower extremity is lifted supports the diagnosis of lumbar radiculopathy. Nerve testing (EMG/electromyogram and NCV/nerve conduction velocity) of the lower extremities can be used to detect the nerve irritation. The actual disc herniation can be detected with radiology testing, such as CAT or MRI scanning.

Quick GuideSciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Sciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

How is radiculopathy treated?

The treatment of degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, and sciatica ranges from nonsurgical (medical) management to surgery. Medical management of radiculopathy includes patient education of the condition, medications to relieve pain and muscles spasm, cortisone injection around the spinal cord (epidural injection), physical therapy (heat, exercises, massage, ultrasound, electrical stimulation), chiropractic manipulation and rest (not strict bed rest, but avoiding reinjury). With unrelenting pain, severe impairment of function, or incontinence (which can indicate spinal cord irritation), surgery may be necessary. The operation performed depends on the overall status of the spine and the age and health of the patient. Procedures include removal of the herniated disc with laminotomy (producing a small hole in the bone of the spine surrounding the spinal cord), laminectomy (removal of the bony wall adjacent to the nerve tissues), by needle technique through the skin (percutaneous discectomy), disc-dissolving procedures (chemonucleolysis), and others.

What is bony encroachment and spinal stenosis?

Any condition that results in movement or growth of the bony vertebrae of the spine can limit the space (encroachment) for the adjacent spinal cord and nerves. Causes of bony encroachment of the spinal nerves include foramen narrowing (narrowing of the portal through which the spinal nerve passes from the spinal column, out of the spinal canal to the body), spondylolisthesis (slipping of one vertebra relative to another), and spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal causing by compression of the nerve roots or spinal cord by bony spurs or other soft tissues in the spinal canal). For example, lumbar spinal nerve compression in these conditions can lead to sciatica pain that radiates down the lower extremities.

Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal) can occur at any level of the spine, but it's most common in the lumbar spine of the low back. Symptoms depend on the level affected. For example, lumbar spinal stenosis can cause lower-extremity pains that worsen with walking and are relieved by resting (mimicking poor circulation of the lower extremities).

Treatment of these conditions varies (depending on the severity and condition of the patient) from rest to epidural cortisone injection and surgical decompression by removing the bone that is compressing the nervous tissue.

What is the outlook (prognosis) of degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, and sciatica?

The outlook of degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, and sciatica depends on the severity of the condition, its precise cause, and the interventions used to treat the patient. When patients respond to conservative treatments, the result can be complete healing. Surgical repairs can require postoperative rehabilitation, including physical therapy.

Can degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, and sciatica be prevented?

Avoiding injury can prevent these conditions. When the disease already exists, aggravation of existing symptoms can be avoided by limiting stressing or overusing the involved spine.

Medically reviewed by Aimee V. HachigianGould, MD; American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery

REFERENCE:

Klippel, John H., et al., eds. Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. 13th ed. New York: Springer and Arthritis Foundation, 2008.

Quick GuideSciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Sciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

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Reviewed on 11/6/2015
References
Medically reviewed by Aimee V. HachigianGould, MD; American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery

REFERENCE:

Klippel, John H., et al., eds. Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. 13th ed. New York: Springer and Arthritis Foundation, 2008.

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