Degenerative disc disease – symptoms & causes


The degenerative disc disease is when the normal changes take the place in the disks of your spine which is causing pain. When someone has a young and healthy back, discs between the vertebra provide height and they allow bending, flexion and twisting. We know that discs are shock absorbers between the bones of the spine and they are designed to help the back to stay flexible while resisting forces. When we are getting older, the rubbery discs begin to shrink and they lose integrity. Almost every single person shows some signs of wear and tear on the spinal discs as they are getting older. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) studies have shown that almost every single person who is older than 60 has a degeneration of the discs but not all people have a back pain.

There are some cases when the discs can collapse completely and they cause the facet joints in the vertebrae to rub against one another which are causing pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis. Those people in whom the degenerated discs do cause pain which cannot be attributed to other problems it is considered that they have degenerative disc disease. The degenerative disc disease can affect any part of the spine, but it most commonly affects the lower back (known as lumbar spine) or neck (known as cervical spine). The pain that is caused by degenerative disc disease can radiate to another part of your body which means that you may not feel pain just on the affected part. This traveling of the pain message is known by the medical term – radiculopathy. Usually, people with degenerative disc disease have chronic back or neck pain. You should watch if your pain gets worse and seek immediate medical help.


Degenerative disc disease

The symptoms of the degenerative disc disease are most commonly concentrated in the low back or neck which depends on where the degenerated discs are. Usually, you will feel sharp or constant pain in your back and neck. Here are the most common symptoms of degenerative disc disease:

  • Weakness in the leg muscles or foot drop which can be a sign that there is a damage to the nerve root
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • There can be periods of severe pain that come and go, lasting from a few days to a few months
  • There can be a pain that lessens with changing positions often or lying down
  • Pain that lessens when walking and moving
  • Your pain can gets worse when bending, lifting or twisting
  • Pain that is worse when sitting
  • The pain in your neck that may radiate to the arms and hands
  • Pain that affects the low back, buttocks and thighs
  • The pain that ranges from nagging to severe and disabling

The diagnosis of the degenerative disc disease is based on a physical examination and medical history which is including a description of the symptoms and circumstances of when and where the pain started. The MRI can show the damage to discs but this testing cannot alone confirm the degenerative disc disease.


The degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease. The degenerative disc disease refers to a condition in which the pain is caused from a disc that loses integrity. There are different factors which can cause discs to degenerate, including age.  Our spinal disks are made up of a soft inner core and a tough outer wall. These disks can change in the ways which can cause degenerative disc disease, such as

  • Crack: It is known fact that the stress of daily movements and the minor injuries over the years can cause tiny tears in the outer wall which has nerves. Any tears that are near nerves can become painful. If the wall breaks down, then the soft core of the disk can push through the cracks. This disk can bulge or slip out of place which is known as herniated or slipped disk. This can affect nearby nerves.
  • Dry out: When we are born, then the disks in our spine are mostly made up of water. As we are getting older, they lose water and get thinner. Flatter disks cannot absorb shocks well and the water loss also means less cushion or padding between your vertebrae. This could lead to other problems in your spine which can lead to pain.


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