Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease is a condition caused by the breakdown of the discs that separate the spine bones. As you age, the spine begins to show signs of wear and tear as the discs dry out and shrink. These age-related changes can lead to arthritis, disc herniation, or spinal stenosis. Pressure on the spinal cord and nerves may cause pain. Physical therapy, self-care, medication, and spinal injections are used to manage symptoms. Surgery is an option if the pain is chronic.
Anatomy of vertebrae & discs
To understand a degenerative disc, it is helpful to understand the Anatomy of the Spine. Your spine is made up of a column of bones called vertebrae. Between each vertebra is a gel-filled disc that acts a shock absorber, keeping your vertebrae from rubbing together. Discs have a tough outer wall (the annulus) and a soft center (the nucleus) Your discs are made up of about 80% water, and as you get older, they slowly lose water, and with it their ability to act as shock absorbers.
Degenerative disc disease (also called spondylosis) is a general term used to describe changes that can occur along any area of the spine (cervical, thoracic, lumbar) as you age, but is most common in the lumbar area. It’s not actually a disease, but rather a condition in which your discs “degenerate,” or lose their flexibility and ability to cushion your spine. Your discs don’t have a good blood supply, so once injured it can’t repair itself.
The symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary from person to person. Many people with deterioration have no pain, while others may experience pain so intense that it interferes with daily activities. Interestingly, even though this condition affects people starting in their twenties or thirties, people in their sixties are less likely to have back pain caused by deteriorated discs.
Pain often starts in one of three ways: (1) a major injury followed by sudden and unexpected pain, (2) a trivial injury followed by sudden back pain, and (3) pain that starts gradually and gets progressively worse.
Usually, the pain begins in the lower back, and may be felt in one or both of your legs and buttocks (sciatica). It’s often described as pressure or burning pain. You may also feel numbness or tingling in your leg and foot, which usually is not a cause for concern unless you have weakness in your leg muscles.
Parts of the Spine and Healthy intervertebral disk (cross-section view).