Degenerative Disc Disease Causes and Treatments

The gradual deterioration of the discs between the vertebrae in the spine is referred to as degenerative disc disease (DDD). As people age, the composition of the cartilage of the body changes, resulting in thinner and more fragile cartilage. The changes cause the discs and joints that stack the vertebrae (also known as facet joints) to wear and tear over time. Degeneration of the structures of the spine is also known as spondylosis.

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Pathology

The discs in the spine act as shock absorbers, which allow the back to resist forces and remain flexible. However, as we age, the discs start to become stiffer and less pliable.

Degeneration of discs is a normal consequence of aging. Most people experience some degree of disc degeneration over time. However, not everyone feels pain associated with such disc degeneration.

In some cases of degeneration, the vertebral discs can collapse and cause the vertebrae to rub against each other. This is referred to as osteoarthritis. If the vertebra slips out of place, is described as spondylolisthesis, which usually causes pain, and sometimes causes sensory loss and weakness as well.

Unlike muscle and bone, discs receive very little circulation. Without adequate blood flow, the discs can't repair themselves, so injury to discs results in permanent damage.

Diagnosis

Spondylosis can be seen on X-rays or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the spine as a narrowing of the normal disc space between adjacent vertebrae. Imaging usually confirms the diagnosis of degenerative disc disease.​

Any level of the spine can be affected. Degeneration of the disc can cause local pain in the affected area.

  • Degenerative disc disease of the neck is referred to as cervical disc disease or cervical spondylosis.
  • When the mid-back is affected, the condition is known as thoracic disc disease.
  • Degenerative disc disease affecting the lower spine is referred to as lumbar disc disease.

Causes

Degenerative disc disease is usually related to aging. It can also occur due to repeated movements, wear and tear, or trauma.

For example, injuries sustained while participating in sports can lead to tears in the discs.

Treatments

A key to the treatment of degenerative disc disease is exercise. People with this condition need to exercise to strengthen the muscles that support the vertebra of the spine. This includes exercising the muscles of the neck, lower back, and core.

Furthermore, although discs don't receive much blood, exercise may increase blood flow to the muscles and joints of the back, which promotes healing and clears waste products.

The pain from degenerative disc disease is usually treated with heat, rest, rehabilitative exercises, and physical therapy. Oral (by mouth) medications are sometimes prescribed to relieve pain, muscle spasm, and inflammation.

Corticosteroid injections can be used to relieve pain as well. Sometimes surgery is an option for treating degenerative disc disease.

Conservative treatments are tried first before surgical treatment options are considered if spondylosis has resulted in compression of the spinal cord or spinal nerve roots.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Low back pain. Reviewed December 2013.

  2. Arthritis Foundation. Osteoarthritis.

  3. Columbia University Department of Neurological Surgery. Spondylosis.