Degenerative Disk Disease

This condition occurs over time usually due to injuries, sports, daily activities, or spinal disks dries out or shrinks. Nonetheless, the condition’s name, it is not a disease. The most common symptom of this condition is back pain.

Spinal Disks

The spinal disks are located between bones or vertebrae in the spine and their work can be compared to shock absorbers. They also are responsible for keeping your back flexible, which makes bending and twisting possible. However, as a person becomes older, disks tend to wear and tear which may lead to their breakdown.

In any case, many people experience spine disk breakdown but not everyone feels pain due to this. Physicians usually diagnose this condition when you experience pain caused by worn spinal disks.

Degenerative Disk Disease Types

This condition often appears in spine parts that are mostly moved (including the neck and lower back). For example:

  • Lumbar Degenerative Disk Disease – In the lower back (lumbar spine) are located the largest bones in the spine. Physicians often refer to these bones as L1 to L5. Approximately 90% of disk problems occur due to lumbar degenerative disk disease.
  • Cervical Degenerative Disk Disease – This type occurs in the neck (cervical spine) that consists of 7 vertebrae. Disks are separating these vertebrae. The neck supports different movements including head-turning. When degeneration of the disks happens, you may experience pain and difficulty moving. However, many people do not experience any symptoms while experiencing cervical degenerative disk disease.


There are several causes of this spine condition. Check below some of them:

  • Drying out – The spine disks mostly consist of water when a baby is born. Over time the water goes away and the ability of disks to absorb shocks decreases. Thus, it provokes spine problems and symptoms (such as pain).
  • Cracking – Persistent strain and stress on the back provoke tiny tears in the disk wall. These walls contain nerves and tears can provoke pain. In case the disk walls break, the disk’s core is pushed out through cracks. However, if the disk bulges or slips out of place, it is called a herniated or slipped disk. The main causes include daily activities (lifting something heavy, picking a crying child, gardening, and others) and injuries (for instance, caused by falls, incorrectly lifting heavy weights, and others).

Risk Factors

Anyone can get this condition but older people are more likely to develop it. It occurs because with aging the disks wear and tear themselves. Check below some risk factors:

  • Aging – This is considered one of the bigger factors that leads to degenerative disk disease. As per studies, 9 out of 10 people experience spine disk problems over 60 years old. In any case, not everyone experiences pain due to disk degeneration.
  • Obesity – Some research showed that high body weight is linked to spinal damage, which makes obese people more likely to experience degenerative disk disease.
  • Heavy lifting – Regular heavy lifting increases the risk of degeneration of the disks.
  • Family history – Degenerative disk disease usually runs in families. It means if your biological parents have this condition, you are more prone to develop it.
  • Smoking – For some people, it may be a reason to quit smoking because according to research, smoking elevates the risk of disk degeneration. Furthermore, if you were diagnosed with this spine condition, smoking can worsen the symptoms. Using tobacco products can even produce some complications if you receive surgery to treat degenerative disk disease.


The primary symptom of this condition is pain that occurs in the neck and back. However, the symptoms can differ from one person to another because it depends on the spine part the condition happens. Check below some common symptoms:

  • Pain worsens when you sit, bend, lift, or twist
  • You can also notice that pain disappears when lie down, change position, move, and walk

Some people may experience tingling and numbness in the legs and feet or weakness of the muscles. Mostly, it happens because the damaged disk negatively affects the nerves in the spine.

In any case, the pain can be from mild to severe and can spread to other parts of the body. For instance, pain usually begins in the lower back or neck and sometimes can spread to the buttocks, thighs, arms, and hands.


First, physicians will ask some questions about symptoms and family history then perform a physical examination to check for conditions. In case they are not sure whether you have degenerative disk disease or not, you may need to do some tests including X-ray or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).


The treatment usually is different among patients because it depends on the condition’s type, severity, age, and other factors. Check below some treatment options:

  • Medications – Physicians can prescribe over-the-counter (OTC) drugs such as Ibuprofen to relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Physical Therapy – This procedure involves specific exercises that help to return neck and back flexibility.
  • Steroid Shots – In some cases, doctors prescribe a strong medicine that is usually injected in the epidural space in the back. These drugs help to lessen the pain, swelling, and inflammation.
  • Radiofrequency Neurotomy – Healthcare providers use radio waves to destroy the nerves from the spine, which helps to get pain relief right away. The duration of the pain relief is usually 6-12 months but sometimes may last for several years. Unfortunately, this procedure is not effective for many people.

Are There Other Options to Manage Pain?

Yes, physicians may recommend the following things along with treatment to lessen the pain. Check below some examples:

  • Slim down – Try to lose and maintain a healthy weight. Otherwise, it may put extra strain on your back which increases the risk of nerve damage and pain.
  • Massage – According to some studies, massage is an effective option to receive temporary pain relief.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS – During this procedure, you will get small electrical impulses that help to lessen the pain. Discuss with your healthcare provider how to choose the TENS device right for you and it can be used at home.
  • Correct posture – One way to prevent back pain is to stand and sit with proper posture. Consult with the doctor about improving posture exercises.
  • Regular exercise – These include Pilates, stretching, yoga, and tai chi are some exercises that may help to reduce pain.
  • Cold and hot therapy – This procedure involves heating and cold pads that are applied on the back consecutively for 10-15 minutes.

In case you experience severe pain due to degenerative disk disease, your doctor may recommend surgery. The most common surgeries include spinal fusion, discectomy, foraminotomy, laminotomy, laminectomy, and artificial disk replacement. Discuss with your healthcare provider for more details.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I avoid if was diagnosed with degenerative disk disease?

The following tips can help to prevent or avoid worsening of the symptoms and complications. For example:

Is it possible to prevent degenerative disk disease?

The primary risk factor for this disease is aging. While you cannot stop getting older you may slow or prevent disk damage. Examples include:

  • Avoid tobacco products
  • Try to lose and maintain a healthy weight for you
  • Regular exercise

Can degenerative disk disease be cured?

No, there is no cure for this spine condition but with proper treatment, you can reduce the symptoms and improve your quality of life. In case you experience degenerative disk disease symptoms, do not hesitate to see a doctor.

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