What is a Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is a condition that is commonly misunderstood. A degenerated disc is not actually a disease—it is part of the normal ageing of the spine. When a spinal disc degenerates, it loses its ability to function efficiently as part of the spinal joint, which in turn can lead to lower back pain and possibly pain that radiates through the extremities.

Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

Symptoms are most commonly concentrated in the low back or neck, depending on where the degenerated disc(s) are. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain that ranges from nagging to severe and disabling
  • Pain that affects the low back, buttocks and thighs
  • Pain in the neck that may radiate to the arms and hands
  • Pain that is worse when sitting
  • Pain that gets worse when bending, lifting or twisting

Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease

Pain associated with degenerative disc disease generally stems from two main factors:

  1. Inflammation. Inflammatory proteins from the disc space interior can leak out as the disc degenerates, causing swelling in the surrounding spinal structures. This inflammation can produce muscle tension, muscle spasms, and local tenderness in the back or neck. If a nerve root becomes inflamed, pain and numbness may radiate into the arm and shoulder (called a cervical radiculopathy in cases of cervical disc degeneration), or into the hips or leg (called a lumbar radiculopathy, in cases of lumbar disc degeneration).
  2. Abnormal micro-motion instability. The cushioning and support a disc typically provides decreases as the disc’s outer layer (the annulus fibrosis) degenerates, leading to small, unnatural motions between vertebrae. These micro-motions can cause tension and irritation in the surrounding muscles, joints, and/or nerve roots as the spinal segment becomes progressively more unstable, causing intermittent episodes of more intense pain.

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