What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative Disc Disease Can Affect Any Level of the Spine

This enhanced axial T2 weighted MRI image of the lumbar spine. Credit: Living Art Enterprises / Getty Images

The gradual deterioration of the disc between the vertebrae is referred to as degenerative disc disease (DDD). As people age, the composition of the cartilage of the body changes, resulting in thinner and more fragile cartilage. The changes cause the discs and joints that stack the vertebrae (also known as facet joints) to wear and tear over time. Degeneration of the disc in degenerative disc disease is also referred to as spondylosis.

Spondylosis can be seen on x-rays or an MRI scan of the spine as a narrowing of the normal disc space between adjacent vertebrae. The x-ray or MRI evidence is what confirms the diagnosis of Degenerative Disc Disease.

Any level of the spine can be affected. Degeneration of the disc can cause local pain in the affected area. When degenerative disc disease specifically affects the spine of the neck, it is more specifically referred to as cervical disc disease. When the mid-back is affected, the condition is known as thoracic disc disease. Degenerative Disc Disease affecting the lumbar spine is referred to as lumbar disc disease.

The pain from degenerative disc disease is usually treated with heat, rest, rehabilitative exercises, and medications to relieve pain, muscle spasm, and inflammation. Interestingly, Degenerative disc disease is very common. Conservative treatments are tried first and surgical treatment options are considered as a last resort.

A Closer Look at the Pathology of Degenerative Disc Disease

Young people with healthy spines are able to flex, bend and twist their backs without problem. The discs in the spine act as shock absorbers which allow the back to resist forces and remain flexible. However as we age, the discs start to become stiffer and less pliable.

Degeneration of discs is a normal consequence of aging. Every person aged 60 or more experiences some degree of disc degeneration. However, not everyone feels pain associated with such disc degeneration. In more severe cases of degeneration, the vertebral discs can collapse and cause the vertebrae to rub against each other. This occurrence is referred to as osteoarthritis.

People who have back pain that can only be attributed to degeneration of the discs are diagnosed with degenerative disc disease.

Unlike muscle and bone, discs receive very little circulation. Without adequate blood flow, these discs can't repair themselves. In other words, injury to discs results in permanent damage.

What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease can be related to aging. Specifically as a person ages, the discs of the spine dry out and can't absorb shock as well.

In addition to aging, degenerative disc disease can also be caused by injury. For example, injuries sustained while participating in sports can lead to tears in the discs.

How Is Degenerative Disc Disease Treated?

A key to the treatment of degenerative disc disease is exercise. People with this condition need to exercise to strengthen the muscles that support the spine and vertebrae.

Furthermore although discs don't receive much blood, exercise increases blood flow to the muscles and joints of the back, which nourishes the back and clears waste products. Other helpful interventions aimed at treating degenerative disc disease include heat therapy, cold therapy, physical therapy, medications and surgery.