What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative disc disease is a common medical condition characterized by the deterioration of the spinal discs, which are located between the bones (vertebrae) of the spine. These discs act as cushions, keeping the bones from rubbing together with movement. Breakdown of the discs over a lifetime is normal and expected; at birth, the discs are about 80% water, but as time goes on, they dry out and become brittle. Degenerative disc disease is only a problem if it causes discomfort or difficulty with movement.
Age is the most common cause of degenerative disc disease. All humans who live long enough will eventually show signs of disc deterioration by spinal X-ray. However, not everyone will experience pain or discomfort. It is possible to have disc degeneration and not have any adverse physical symptoms; in fact, some people with fairly extensive degeneration do not have any physical symptoms. However, other people experience rather an intense discomfort despite little disc disintegration.
How you use your body may play a role in the development of degenerative disc disease. People whose jobs require them to frequently lift and move objects may be at increased risk because repetitive movement strains the discs. Physical activity and sports involvement can also cause disc deterioration over time. (However, in most cases, the benefits of cardiovascular physical activity and strength training outweigh the increased risk of disc disintegration.) Any injury to your back or neck can increase the risk of degenerative disc disease as well.
Degenerative disc disease can affect any part of the spine. If the affected discs—and associated discomfort—are located in the neck, the condition is cervical degenerative disc disease. (The part of your spine that’s in your neck is the cervical spine.) If the affected discs are located in your lower back, or lumbar spine region, you have lumbar degenerative disc disease.
A thin or collapsed disc increases pressure on the facet joints of the vertebrae. With time, cartilage and other tissues that allow easy joint and spine movement break down as well, causing the facet joint bones to rub against each other. This is spinal arthritis or degenerative arthritis. Although arthritis can develop without disc degeneration, brittle discs can make arthritis worse. Degenerative disc disease and arthritis can cause pain, numbness, and weakness. Symptoms may be occasional or chronic; they can also vary in intensity from mild to severe. Often, moving the back or neck will increase the pain.
Common signs and symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:
Pain that is worse when sitting, bending, lifting, or twisting
Pain in the lower back, buttocks, or thighs
Pain that improves when you walk or run (vs. sitting or standing)
Bouts of severe pain that come and go
Neck pain that radiates to the arms or hands
Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs