Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back pain, and also one of the most misunderstood. Many patients diagnosed with low back pain caused by degenerative disc disease are left wondering exactly what this diagnosis means for them. Common questions that are often on patients’ minds include:
A large part of many patients’ confusion is that the term “degenerative disc disease” sounds like a progressive, very threatening condition. However, this condition is not strictly degenerative and is not really a disease:
Disc degeneration is a natural part of aging and over time all people will exhibit changes in their discs consistent with a greater or lesser degree of degeneration. However, not all people will develop symptoms. In fact, degenerative disc disease is quite variable in its nature and severity.
As we age, our spinal discs break down, or degenerate, which may result in degenerative disc disease in some people.
These age-related changes include:
A sudden (acute) injury leading to a herniated disc (such as a fall) may also begin the degeneration process.
As the space between the vertebrae gets smaller, there is less padding between them, and the spine becomes less stable. The body reacts to this by constructing bony growths called bone spurs (osteophytes). Bone spurs can put pressure on the spinal nerve roots or spinal cord, resulting in pain and affecting nerve function.
Degenerative disc disease may result in back or neck pain, but this varies from person to person. Many people have no pain, while others with the same amount of disc damage have severe pain that limits their activities. Where the pain occurs depends on the location of the affected disc. An affected disc in the neck area may result in neck or arm pain, while an affected disc in the lower back may result in pain in the back, buttock, or leg. The pain often gets worse with movements such as bending over, reaching up, or twisting.