Discs lie between the spinal bones (vertebrae). They serve as shock absorbers. Discs protect the spine and help it stay flexible. Degenerative disc disease is wear and tear on these discs. This wear and tear causes pain and other symptoms. Some degeneration is normal as you age. Not all degeneration will result in symptoms of this disease.
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The disc loses fluid and is not as resilient as a normal disc. The fibrous tissue, which holds the disc material in place, may suffer small tears. These tears lead to further damage. There is some evidence that genetics may play a part for some people.
Factors that may increase your chance of degenerative disc disease include:
Degenerative disc may cause:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Images may be taken of the disc and surrounding area. This can be done with:
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
Your nerves may be evaluated. This can be done with an electromyogram and nerve conduction studies.
Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Treatment options include:
Therapy for this condition is focused on teaching how to manage back pain. This may involve:
Steroid injections may be used for some short-term pain relief. They are injected around the nerves exiting the spinal cord.
Surgery may be required for some. Surgery may involve removing the degenerated disc and fusing 2 of the vertebrae together.
To help reduce your chance of degenerative disc disease:
North American Spine Society
Ortho Info—American Academy
of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
Bogduk N, Anat D. Degenerative joint disease of the spine. Radiol Clin North Am. 2012;15(4):613-628.
Degenerative Disc Disease. Hospital for Special Surgery website. Available at: https://www.hss.edu/condition-list_degenerative-disc-disease.asp. Accessed November 12, 2017.
Low Back Pain. Ortho Info- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: https://orthoinfo.org/en/diseases--conditions/low-back-pain. Updated December 2013. Accessed November 12, 2017.
Lumbar disk herniation. EBSCO Dynamed Plus website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116077/Lumbar-disk-herniation . Updated September 6, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2017.
Madera M, Brady J, Deily S, et al. The role of physical therapy and rehabilitation after lumbar spinal fusion surgery for degenerative Disease: a systematic review. J Neurosurg:Spine.2017:26(6):694-704.
Paassilta P, Lohiniva J, et al. Identification of a novel common genetic risk factor for lumbar disk disease. JAMA. 2001;285:1843-1849.
Urban J, Roberts S. Degeneration of the intervertebral disc. Arthritis Res Ther. 2003;5(3):120-130.
Last reviewed November 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Laura Lei-Rivera, PT, DPT, GCS
Last Updated: 12/20/2014