Degenerative Disc Disease



Disc degeneration is associated with pain in the back or neck. Pain may also be present in the arms or legs. However, not all degenerated discs cause pain.


As we age, discs in the spine dehydrate. This is not always a painful condition. However, disc degeneration may follow injury to a disc. This condition may be more likely to be painful.

Early treatment for painful disc degeneration includes physical therapy, education and/or medication. If pain persists after these treatments, surgery may be considered. It is important to discuss treatment options with your doctor in deciding which treatment, if any, may be best for you.

Full Description of Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative Disc Disease...Between each pair of bony vertebral bodies is a soft disc that acts as a shock absorber. The disc is made up of two parts, the annulus and the nucleus. The annulus is the outer part of the disc and is made of many rings of cartilage-like tissue. The nucleus, a jelly-like substance, is at the center of the disc. As we age, the disc can dehydrate, making it less supportive and more prone to injury. The disc height decreases as the disc dehydrates and can produce chemicals locally that irritate the surrounding tissue, causing neck or back pain. There may also be pain in the arms or legs. Degenerative disc disease is very common in the older population, but also occurs in younger adults. Factors contributing to degenerative disc disease are not fully understood, but there appears to be a genetic link. It is unclear how much activity “wear and tear,” such as with repetitive bending/lifting, truly affects degenerative disc disease.

Almost everyone’s discs dehydrate and degenerate with age. In many people, degeneration is not painful. Sometimes the process is painful. Acute disc pain may also occur after a tear or injury to the disc tissue.

Screening and Diagnosis for Degenerative Disc Disease

The diagnosis of degenerative disc disease begins with the doctor reviewing your history and performing a physical examination. X-rays may be made to investigate reduced disc height or other problems. An MRI scan may be obtained as it helps assess water content of the discs and any resultant “bulging” or protruding of the disc tissue. However, because disc degeneration is so common, many people have discs that look abnormal on an MRI, although they may not have back or neck pain. Because of this problem, other diagnostic tests, such as discography, may be done to verify if the disc is causing pain. Sometimes other injections are also done to rule out other possible pain origins.

Treatments for Degenerative Disc Disease

Typically, the first line of treatment includes active physical therapy and education. Strengthening of the muscles in the trunk and around the spine may help to reduce pain. Medication may be prescribed. If an unacceptable level of pain persists for several months after other treatments, surgical options may be considered. There are several minimally invasive procedures that are most frequently used for early stages of degenerative disc disease. Various inter-body fusion procedures may be used in which disc tissue is removed and replaced with bone to stabilize the painful spinal segment. Total disc replacement or artificial discs may be used as well. The disc tissue is removed and a mobile disc prosthesis is put into the disc space. It is important to discuss treatment options with your doctor in deciding which treatment, if any, may be best for you.

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