What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is the natural wear and tear on your spinal discs as you age. Prevent degenerative disc disease from getting worse by exercising regularly, eating well, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking.
Degenerative disc disease is the natural wear and tear on your spinal discs as you age. Prevent degenerative disc disease from getting worse by exercising regularly, eating well, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking.

Degenerative disc disease is a normal part of getting older. Some people never have any symptoms, but others experience considerable amounts of pain. Staying active and keeping a healthy weight, though, along with other healthy lifestyle choices, can help you avoid problems. 

Degenerative disc disease is the natural wear and tear on your spinal discs as you age. It’s not actually a disease, but instead, a normal breakdown that happens with time. By age 60, almost everyone will start to show disc degeneration in the spine, but not everyone will have symptoms. 

The breakdown leads to spine instability, cases where the spine can’t bear your weight or move properly, potentially speeding up other diseases like: 

What causes degenerative disc disease?

Your spine is a column of bones called vertebrae with rubbery discs in between. These discs cushion your spine, absorb your weight and the shock of movement, and they help you bend and twist. 

As you age, these discs change and lose water, protein, and other compounds. Your discs dry out, become thin, and compress or flatten. As the discs compress, less oxygen and nutrients get into the tissue, and the tough outer layer starts to break down. Your discs don’t have much of a blood supply, so along with less oxygen and nutrients, the discs can’t repair themselves and heal.

In some cases, the discs break down so much that your bones start to rub on each other, leading to arthritis. If your discs flatten a lot, the inner part called the nucleus can bulge out and cause a herniated or slipped disc.

Regular activity and sports can tear the outer layer of the disc, which can also lead to degeneration. Other causes include:

What are the symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

The main symptom is pain, which usually affects the lower back or neck. Degenerative disc disease symptoms can come and go, last for a short time, or be ongoing and last for longer than 3 months.

The symptoms include:

  • Weakness
  • Numbness
  • Pain that gets worse with sitting, bending, lifting, or twisting
  • Pain that radiates down the back of your legs
  • Pain that radiates down your shoulder and arm
  • Muscle spasms in your back

Sometimes, you can get bony growths called bone spurs that press on a nerve. This pressure can cause muscle weakness, numbness in your arms and legs, trouble walking or moving, and loss of bowel and bladder control.

What is the best treatment for degenerative disc disease?

Treatment for degenerative disc disease depends on the severity of your case and whether you have other spine conditions. Surgery might be necessary in some cases, but this is uncommon. In most cases, your doctor will recommend what’s called conservative treatment, which focuses on:

  • Strengthening your back muscles
  • Lowering inflammation
  • Making your spine stable 
  • Easing your pain and other symptoms

Physical therapy

Physical therapy involves a series of exercises that stretch and strengthen your muscles. Therapy can build flexibility and movement and relieve your pain. Physical therapy can also teach you new ways to move, lift, or bend that don’t cause pain. Massage, ultrasound, and other techniques can all be part of therapy. 

Medications

Medications can also help and can include:

Rest

Bed rest and heat and ice therapy on your back can also relieve pain. 

Exercise

Exercise releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins that can ease your pain. Some people find that movement also helps with pain. Walking might be better than sitting for long periods of time, for example. Exercise can also help you lose weight and strengthen your back muscles.

What is the best thing to do for degenerative disc disease?

Lifestyle changes are also important. Since degenerative disc disease is a normal part of aging, the best thing you can do is to be proactive in your health as you age. You should:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Stop smoking
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Outlook

Most people can manage pain and symptoms at home with over-the-counter medicines, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes. If you have ongoing back pain, or pain that doesn’t get better with treatment, talk to your doctor.  

QUESTION

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Medically Reviewed on 1/12/2022
References
SOURCES:

Arthritis Foundation: "Degenerative Disc Disease."

Beaumont Health: "Degenerative Disc Disease."

Cedars Sinai: "Degenerative Disc Disease."

Cleveland Clinic: "Degenerative Disk Disease" "Spondylolisthesis."

Columbia University Irving Medical Center Neurological Institute of New York: "Degenerative Disc Disease."

Duke University Duke Health: "Degenerative Disc Disease."

JOHNS HOPKINS MEDICINE: "Degenerative Disc Disease."

Mayo Clinic: "Spinal stenosis," "Herniated disk."

Medscape: "Degenerative Disk Disease."

University of Utah: "Degenerative Disk Disease."