Degenerative disc disease

Man in warehouse with hurt back

Degenerative disc disease is actually a condition rather than a disease. It's a breakdown of the discs in the spine caused by wear and tear. Discs in the spine have a limited blood supply, which means it takes longer for oxygen and nutrients to reach them. Because of this, the discs are slow to heal when injured.

Discs experience wear and tear over time, and eventually, they start to break down. When the discs deteriorate, they are unable to act as shock absorbers during daily activities. This causes pain and restricted movement in the spine. In smokers, discs tend to degenerate even faster because of decreased oxygen supply to the spine.

Degenerative disc disease mostly occurs in the neck and lower back, and rarely occurs in the thoracic (middle) spine. 

Degenerative disc disease symptoms

Common symptoms include pain that:

  • Increases when twisting, bending or lifting

  • Is long-lasting (chronic)

  • Occurs after getting out of bed in the morning

  • Worsens after long periods of sitting 

Degenerative disc disease diagnosis

Your doctor diagnoses degenerative disc disease with a physical examination and imaging tests to check the extent of the wear and tear.

These tests may include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—uses a large magnet, radio frequencies and a computer to produce detailed pictures of the spine.

  • Computed tomography (CT scan)—an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the spine.

  • X-ray —are taken of the neck, upper or lower back or tailbone to help to find problems associated with back pain.

Degenerative disc disease treatment

Most cases of degenerative disc disease can be treated with nonsurgical methods. These include:

  • Epidural steroid injections—a procedure where a steroid medication is injected into the spinal area.

  • Exercise—physical activity can prevent or relieve back pain.

  • Facet joint injections—a procedure where pain medication is injected into the affected nerve. 

  • Pain medicine—medications that relieve discomfort, swelling and inflammation.

  • Physical therapy—exercises to strengthen and regain range of motion in the affected area.  

Severe cases of degenerative disc disease may require surgery. We offer several surgical options, including:

  • Discectomy—a procedure to repair a disc in the lower back.

  • Facetectomy—a surgery that removes a portion of the spinal joint to decompress a nerve root compressed by a degenerated disc.

  • Foraminotomy—a procedure to relieve pressure on compressed nerves by enlarging the space between the vertebrae where the nerve exits the spinal column.

  • Laminectomy—a procedure to remove all or part of the posterior portion of the vertebral bone, relieving pressure on the nerves and spinal cord.

  • Laminotomy—a procedure to remove a portion of the vertebral arch (bone around the spinal cord canal) to relieve pressure on the vertebrae.

All of these methods can be accompanied by spinal fusion, which fuses together the painful vertebrae and gives stability to the spine. Sometimes the diseased discs are replaced with an artificial disc.

At The Christ Hospital Health Network, our expert physicians and specialists have the experience and skill to diagnose and treat degenerative disc disease, so you can get back to enjoying life.

Find a degenerative disc disease specialist near you .