Degenerative Disc Disease

May 1, 2022

Degenerative disc (disk) disease is a condition of normal aging of the spine, but can result in pain for many patients.

What is a disc?

Spinal discs act as shock absorbers between the bony vertebrae of the spine. They also aid in movement by changing shape due to different movements and forces. This is what allows us to bend and twist!

They are made up of a tough outer portion called the annulus fibrosus, and have a hydrated, gel-like material nucleus pulposus. The outer part of the annulus has many nerve endings.

Unfortunately, these discs are prone to repetitive stress, and therefore they tend to break down. This commonly occurs due to age, but it can be due to injuries as well. When they do break down, it sets off a series of events that cause other degenerative changes to other parts of the spine. The degenerative cascade can take years. This happens to nearly everyone, especially as we age.

What Causes It?

The degeneration of the disc is caused by several things. I usually tell my patients, it is a normal part of aging, our discs dry out and shrink. When this happens, they do not provide as much cushion or shock absorption. You can also imagine if they are thinner and smaller, then it will also cause issues when you move.

The fibers of the annulus fibrosus can tear due to our everyday movements. Any tears near the nerves can become painful. Furthermore, if the fibers break down more, the disk’s soft core may push through causing a bulge or a herniated disc. This can be painful, especially when contacting a nerve


Common signs:

Pain comes and goes.
Stiffness in the back
The pain is gagging or severe, and can last from a few days to a few months.
The pain is worse when you sit, and better when you move and walk
The pain feels worse when you bend, lift, or twist or other movements
The pain gets better when you change positions or lie down

Come back next month as I will discuss treatment options for DDD!


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