Degenerative Disc Disease

presented-by-spine-universeDegenerative disc disease (DDD) is a normal part of aging. Some people do not know they have DDD until symptoms start. DDD can cause disc structure to change. Discs in the neck (cervical spine) and low back (lumbar spine) can lose normal height decreasing the size of nerve pathways. Nerve impingement, inflammation and pain can develop. The loss of disc height also affects the amount of space between the spine’s joints; the facet joints. Lost space in between the facet joints can result in osteoarthritis (spondylosis), inflammation, and pain that may be constant.


The type of symptoms you experience may depend on the level of the spine affected by degenerative disc disease and its severity.

Cervical (Neck)
Lumbar (Low Back)
Neck pain
Low back pain
Pain that spreads (radiates) into the shoulders, upper, down one or both arms
Pain that spreads (radiates) into the buttocks, thighs, down one or both legs
Numbness, tingling sensations
Numbness, tingling sensations

Talk with your doctor

Sudden pain or pain that is severe, or that becomes chronic or progressive, requires evaluation by your doctor. Perhaps your doctor has already diagnosed you with degenerative disc disease. If that is the case, he will want to know about any new symptoms, especially weakness, problems with balance or when walking, or bladder or bowel dysfunction.


Your doctor collects and compares information gathered while talking with you about your medical history and past and existing symptoms. A physical and neurological examination looks for limitations of movement, balance difficulties, and what exacerbates and relieves pain. During the exam he tests your reflexes, muscle strength, sensations, or other signs of neurologic loss.

A set of plain x-rays help to rule out other disorders such as infection or tumor. The x-rays also reveal information about disc height. Other imaging tests may be ordered by your doctor to study and confirm your diagnosis and direct your treatment plan.


Most cases of cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease do not require surgery. Often, one or more non-surgical treatments are very effective at relieving symptoms. These include:

  • Medications: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation and pain; muscle relaxants to calm spasm; and, occasionally narcotic painkillers.
  • Cold/heat therapy
  • Spinal injections
  • Physical therapy: stretching to increase flexibility, therapeutic exercise to build muscle strength and endurance; posture and importance of maintaining good posture (ergonomics) at rest, work, and during other activities.
  • Chiropractic
  • Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture

Surgery may be recommended if pain cannot be managed, spinal instability develops, or neurologic symptoms develop or progress. Your doctor will explain why he recommends surgery and the type of procedure involved, including what to expect before and after surgery.

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