Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

Written by Jeremy D. Earle, JD

September 14, 2022

Do Car Accidents Cause Degenerative Disc Disease

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about degenerative disc disease, right from the professionals.

Only death, taxes, and degenerative disc disease are certainties in our life. You can do a lot to maintain your back strong and healthy at any age, but time marches on, and you’ll have a hard time stopping it. Your spinal discs — the shock-absorbing cushions between each vertebra – will eventually wear out. Degenerative disc disease may result as a result of this (DDD).

The term is deceptive: it isn’t an illness at all. DDD is a painful disorder caused by a damaged spinal disc. (While everyone’s spinal discs have some wear and tear, not everyone will experience discomfort.) Although you may not experience discomfort for decades (if at all), the degradation process may begin as early as your twenties.

Continue reading to learn more about DDD, who is at risk, and what treatments are available.

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What is Degenerative Disc Disease, and How Does It Affect You?

DDD is a prevalent cause of back discomfort, particularly in older adults. The discs that cushion the vertebrae — your spine’s lengthy stack of bones – start to dry up. Normal wear and tear, as well as an accident, may cause disc deterioration.

The severity of the breakdown, as well as how it affects individuals, differs. One individual may have a serious disc collapse but only have modest discomfort, while another may experience slight disc injury but intense agony.

“It’s basically about the person,” says Neel Anand, MD, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles and director of spine trauma. “Some spines can take a lot of punishment. Others are unable to.”

It helps to have a basic understanding of the spine’s main structures and how they operate to grasp DDD better:

Vertebrae. The interconnecting bones in your spine that support your whole body are known as vertebrae. The cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (upper and mid-back), and lumbar spine (lower back) are the three regions of the spine (lower back). DDD is most common in the neck and lower back, although it may occur anywhere along the spine.

Discs. Shock-absorbing discs, also known as spinal discs or intervertebral discs, are located between each vertebra. They provide cushioning for your vertebrae and enable you to bend, flex, and twist your back. A bulge or tear in the outer region, which is hard and includes nerves, may

be quite painful. You might be in considerably greater pain if the jelly-like contents seep out. That substance contains proteins that swell and tenderize whatever tissue it comes into contact with.

Cartilage. Cartilage surrounds each spinal joint, protecting and cushioning the spine. The breakdown of cartilage due to wear and strain might exacerbate DDD.

The areas of your spine are as follows:

  • Neck (cervical spine)
  • middle back (thoracic spine)
  • Lower back (lumbar spine) (lumbar spine)
  • The sacrum and the coccyx, sometimes known as the tailbone, are located at the bottom of your spine.

The most common sites for degenerative disc disease are the cervical and lumbar spines. Degenerative Disc Disease: What Causes It?


According to Dr. Anand, the spine begins to degenerate between the ages of 20 and 25. However, there’s a reason why most 20-somethings don’t complain about back pain: spinal discs take a long time to wear down on their own.

Disc degeneration is caused by a variety of factors, including normal aging. Other factors may contribute to or cause it.

Your level of activity

Were you a runner, wrestler, dancer, or tennis player when you were younger? Have you ever had to transport children or lift moving boxes? Daily actions produce wear and strain on your spinal discs, whether it’s all in the past or part of the present.


Any back injury that produces swelling or stiffness, from a vehicle accident to a single errant golf swing, might put you at risk for DDD.


DDD is a condition that runs in families, yet scientists have yet to identify the genetic marker(s) that raise the risk. Several genetic disorders have been linked to alterations within the spinal disc that might make it weaker, according to a 2016 research published in Genes & Diseases.

Diseases of the spine

Ankylosing spondylitis (an inflammatory spine illness that causes vertebrae to fuse) and other back problems may raise your risk of DDD.

Obesity, often known as excess weight, is a condition in which a person gains.

Obesity and being overweight increase thestress on your spine. Thespinal discs arecompressedas a result of the extra weight. Overweight and obese adults aremore likely than normal-weightpeopleto havesubstantial disc degeneration, according to a 2012 research published in Arthritis & Rheumatology.


Smoking may lead to the degeneration of spinal discs, according to some research. Again, spinal disc disintegration isn’t always associated with pain, but it is a significant one.

Degenerative Disc Disease: What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Even though the spine is in a near-constant state of degeneration beyond our 20s, most individuals don’t begin to suffer symptoms of DDD until their 60s or 70s, according to Dr. Anand. “An MRI shows that 70% to 80% of individuals have some kind of degeneration, although not everyone has symptoms.” Others suffer considerable discomfort while having rather normal-looking backs. He says, “It’s the way the spine carries the weight.”

He says that since spine degeneration is usually a slow process, you may not notice any symptoms at all in the early stages.

Back discomfort will most likely be the first symptom you experience. It may also spread, particularly to your buttocks and upper thighs (hello, sciatica). This is prevalent in DDD because, although the condition may cause disc injury, it often affects other surrounding structures, such as nerves.

What if you’ve had a completely different experience with back pain? Disc degeneration might still be to blame.

Feeling as if your back has “seized” or “locked up.”

Neck discomfort

Loss of mobility in your spine

Stiffness in your back

Pain that spreads down your buttocks and legs or arms and hands

Pain that increases with prolonged periods of sitting

Leg or foot paralysis in severeinstances

Degenerative Disc Disease: How Is It Diagnosed?

You may be tempted to overlook back discomfort or treat it at home with over-the-counter pain medicines since it is so prevalent. If your discomfort is minimal and lasts a few days, that’s great, but if it’s troublesome or reoccurring, you should consult a doctor.

Whether it’s your first or 50th back pain session, you’ll get a “history and physical.” (In doctor terminology, this refers to a medical history and physical examination.) Your doctor will first discuss your back problems and concerns with you before physically inspecting your body for indicators of trouble, such as stiffness, edema, or anything unusual.

When a doctor takes your medical history, you may expect to be asked questions like:

  • When did the discomfort start?
  • Have you recently been injured?
  • What is the source of the discomfort?
  • How bad is your pain?
  • What makes you feel better or worse in your back?

Although the history and physical examination will serve as a starting point, diagnosing DDD will need more. Imaging studies will be required: Images that demonstrate what’s happening with your spine, such as:


These might include a reduction in disc space, bone spurs (bony growths on your vertebrae), fractures, and other bone-related disorders. Soft tissue is difficult to see on X-rays.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) (magnetic resonance imaging)

This scan may reveal problems with your soft tissues. It may also reveal whether or not your discs have shrunk, your spinal canal has constricted, or your spinal discs have been injured.

Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease

One of the most difficult aspects of treating DDD is that it is such a wide disorder that it affects people in various ways. “DDD is a nebulous diagnosis with no clear cause or therapy,” explains Jason M. Highsmith, MD, a neurosurgeon at Charleston Brain and Spine in Charleston, SC. Many instances have no symptoms, and of those that do, only a small percentage will need surgery.

Treatments that do not need surgery

Many of the symptoms of DDD may be alleviated with easy techniques. Because they don’t entail surgery, they’re classified as “conservative therapy.”

Treatments that aren’t based on drugs. It is not always necessary to take medicine to feel better. Your symptoms may improve if you:

  • Rest and ice for acute back pain bouts
  • Stretching
  • Physical therapy
  • Massage
  • Heat therapy: heating pads, packs, or warm showers and baths
  • Chiropractic care
  • Yoga Medications.

Depending on where you are on the pain scale, your doctor may offer over- the-counter (OTC) or prescription medicines.

OTC or prescription-strength nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), which include ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) (Aleve)

Opioid (narcotic) pain medications for short-term relief for severe pain

Muscular relaxants, if you are suffering muscle spasms due to DDD

Therapeutic injections. Injections are frequently the next step when you need more relief than you’re receiving with oral drugs and non-drug therapy. For DDD, these include:

Epidural corticosteroid injections, in which a potent anti-inflammatory medicine (the corticosteroid) enters into the fluid-filled area surrounding your spinal cord

Nerve blocks, in which pain-relieving medicine enters directly into a nerve

Trigger point injections, in which pain-relieving medicine enters into the adjacent muscle

Like DDD itself, Dr. Anand points out that therapy is quite customized. What works for one person may not work for the other, so it may take some trial and error until you hit on a therapy plan that helps ease your unique symptoms.


Most of the time, DDD does not need surgical treatment. However, some instances of DDD don’t improve sufficiently with cautious care. Dr. Anand states that the following parameters may be utilized to decide whether your DDD might need surgical intervention:

Your pain is worsening over time

Your pain has persisted without any respite for 12 weeks or more

Your pain is so bad it can only be treated with opioids

Your pain is so terrible that you are no longer able to complete your daily activities

Your legs are growing weaker

The aims of surgery for DDD differ from the technique. These are three common surgical methods for DDD.


This treatment removes part or all of a damaged disc, which might be useful if it’s pushing on a nerve.

Spinal fusion

When a disc is significantly injured, it may be removed. To re-stabilize this section of the spine, the surrounding vertebrae are fused (permanently connected) together.

Artificial disc replacement

The injured disc is removed and replaced with an artificial, or prosthetic, disc. In the neck specifically, it may have fewer difficulties than spinal fusion.

Dr. Anand says that many individuals think that DDD is considered a natural part of aging and have to deal with the discomfort. He disagrees. Dr. Anand believes problems that are interfering with your daily life need to be treated. He says, “If you are not getting better after 12-16 weeks, you have to seek therapy aggressively.”

What Are Some Tips for Living with Degenerative Disc Disease?

DDD cannot be avoided. However, you may be able to slow down the growth of the disorder and reduce your unpleasant symptoms. Some of the greatest approaches to reduce the progression of DDD are to:

Achieve and maintain a healthy weight

Live an active lifestyle that combines a combination of various exercises \s• Build a strong core to support your back

Do low-impact exercises, such as aquatics or Pilates

Being sedentary may make DDD worse, so be sure to integrate a lot of standing and walking breaks throughout your day – particularly if you have work that needs you to sit a lot. In  addition, if you ever lose control of your bladder or intestines, you should seek medical assistance immediately once. This might be a symptom that your DDD has damaged your nerves.

However, bear in mind that serious problems from DDD are unusual, and most individuals with the illness may go on to enjoy their typical activities of everyday life. The main thing to remember about DDD is that if you’re in pain, talk with your doctor about treatment options that may get you back on your feet—literally.

What causes degenerative disc disease?

DDD does not have one particular cause in most situations but is just the consequence of regular aging in the spine.

How can I avoid degenerative disc disease?

The best method to maintain your spine strong is to have a healthy lifestyle, including obtaining regular exercise, eating a well-balanced diet, and avoiding dangerous risk factors like smoking and carrying extra weight.

How quickly does degenerative disc disease progress?

Typically, the illness development for DDD is relatively sluggish. Most individuals don’t even feel the consequences of DDD until they are well into their 60s or 70s.

How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?

DDD is diagnosed following an examination with your doctor, which will involve a physical exam, assessment of your symptoms, and imaging testing such as X-ray and an MRI to obtain a deeper look at what’s happening with your spine

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