What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is the loss of cushioning ability in a disc in the back or neck. Discs, rubbery cushions between the bones in the spine (vertebrae), absorb shock when you walk or run.

Discs are made of soft cartilage in the center surrounded by a layer of tough cartilage. Cartilage cushions and protects joints and prevents them from rubbing against each other. The softer cartilage in discs is like jelly.

Normal wear and tear as you age breaks down the discs (makes them degenerate). This can cause back pain and stiffness. Degenerative disc disease is most common in the lower back or neck.

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?

Many people with degenerative disc disease don’t have any pain. Other people have severe pain that limits their activities.

Pain from degenerative disc disease in the lower back is usually in the back, butt, or leg. Degenerative disc disease in the neck usually causes pain in the neck or arm. The pain could start after an injury, after moving normally (e.g., bending over), or for no reason.

Other symptoms of degenerative disc disease are:

  • Pain that gets worse after bending, reaching, twisting, or other movements.
  • Pain that comes and goes; sometimes it’s very bad and sometimes it’s minor. Episodes of bad pain can last from a few days to a few months.

If you have degenerative disc disease, you may feel better when you:

  • Walk, instead of sitting or standing for a long time.
  • Change positions often.
  • Lay with your legs propped up, like on a recliner, or with a pillow under the knees (for degenerative disc disease in the lower back).

What Are the Treatments for Degenerative Disc Disease?

Treatments for degenerative disc disease focus on relieving your pain and improving your ability to move. They include:

  • Medicines:
    • Pain medicines: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen:
      • NSAIDs like ibuprofen (e.g., Advil and Motrin) help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
      • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) relieves pain.
    • Opioid pain medicines like codeine or morphine.
    • Steroid pills to relieve pain.
    • Muscle relaxers for muscle spasms.
    • Anti-seizure drugs to relieve pain from damaged nerves.
    • Physical therapy to prevent pain and reduce episodes of bad pain:
      • Stretching and strengthening exercises.
      • Low-impact aerobic exercise like walking, biking, and exercises in the water.
    • Injection of steroids into the back to relieve pain and increase function.
    • Chiropractic manipulation to relieve pain.

Most people with degenerative disc disease do not need surgery. If other treatments don’t work, surgery may be a treatment option. Common types of surgery are:

  • Fusion to stop the movement between the bones around the degenerated disc. The surgeon “welds” or fuses the bones together so that they heal into a solid bone. To help the bone heal, the surgeon also uses:
    • A bone graft (putting in a piece of bone from another part of the body or a bone bank) to help new bone growth.
    • Plates, screws, and/or rods to help hold the spine still while it heals.
  • Surgery to remove the disc and replace it with an artificial disc.