Degenerative Disc Disease - Fast Facts

What You Should Know About Degenerative Disc Disease

Photo by Mads Abildgaard (iStockphoto)

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is a painful condition caused by damaged discs in the spine. The discs act as shock absorbers between the bones of the spine.

What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?

Essentially, here is what happens: At birth, the discs are 80% water. As you age, the discs dry out and become less able to absorb shock and force. Most people by age 60 have some level of degenerative disc disease, but not all are symptomatic.

In other words, they may not have pain -- yet. Injuries contribute to degenerative disc disease. Usual daily activities and sports also contribute. Having more nerve endings deeper into the outer area of the disc may be a factor in pain associated with degenerative disc disease.

What Symptoms Are Associated With Degenerative Disc Disease?

Typical symptoms associated with degenerative disc disease include:

  • Pain that is worse when sitting compared to standing.
  • Pain that worsens with bending, lifting, twisting.
  • Pain is relieved by changing positions or laying down.
  • Pain is severe and intermittent (comes and goes).
  • Depending on the location of the damaged disc, pain can be from buttocks, thighs, low back, and neck.
  • Tingling, numbness, weak leg muscles, foot drop.

How Is Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosed?

The most useful information that helps establish the diagnosis of degenerative disc disease comes from your medical history and physical examination.

MRIs are useful for detecting damaged discs, but an MRI alone cannot confirm the diagnosis of degenerative disc disease.

How Is Degenerative Disc Disease Treated?

The pain associated with degenerative disc disease is often treated with analgesic medications and physical therapy.

Research in patients receiving spinal fusion surgery has shown though that the risk of analgesic-related death is highest among patients with degenerative disc disease -- nearly three times higher than patients with other diagnoses.

The risk of death related to analgesics was highest among men aged 45 to 54 who had degenerative disc disease -- 7 times higher than other groups. What's the reason? It may be that high analgesic doses are required and accidental overdose occurs.

A damaged disc may require more than analgesics or conservative treatment measures. According to A.D.A.M., "Sometimes, a degenerated disc that is causing back pain can be removed through surgery. However, when a disk is removed, the vertebrae in that area of the spinal column must be re-connected. Typically, surgeons will use spinal fusion to reconnect the vertebrae, which eliminates motion between the vertebrae. The artificial disc, however, preserves motion between the vertebrae."


Degenerative Disc Disease. Cedars-Sinai. Accessed 4/16/2009.

When Is Surgery Necessary? A.D.A.M. April 6, 2007.