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Degenerative Disc Disease of the Spine


This condition is a weakening of one or more vertebral discs, which normally act as a cushion between the vertebrae. This condition can developas a natural part of the aging process, but it may also result from injury to the back.


Degenerative Disc Disease of the Spine

Causes & Triggers

Disc Wall Tears
Degenerative disc disease typically begins when small tears appear in the disc wall, called the annulus. These tears can cause pain.

Disc Wall Heals
When the tears heal, creating scar tissue that is not as strong as the original disc wall. If the back is repeatedly injured, the process of tearing and scarring may continue, weakening the disc wall.

Disc Center Weakens
Over time, the nucleus (or center) of the disc becomes damaged and loses some of its water content. This center is called the pulposus, and its water content is needed to keep the disc functioning as a shock absorber for the spine.

Nucleus Collapses
Unable to act as a cushion, the nucleus collapses. The vertebrae above and below this damaged disc slide closer together. This improper alignment causes the facet joints – the areas where the vertebral bones touch – to twist into an unnatural position.

Bone Spurs Form
In time, this awkward positioning of the vertebrae may create bone spurs. If these spurs grow into the spinal canal, they may pinch the spinal cord and nerves (a condition called spinal stenosis). The site of the injury may be painful.

Signs & Symptoms

Some people experience pain, numbness or tingling in the legs. Strong pain tends to come and go. Bending, twisting and sitting may make the pain worse. Lying down relieves pressure on the spine.

  • Difficulty lifting foot or ankle
  • Numbness
  • Pain:
    • Especially low back, buttocks, thighs, neck
    • Worsens with sitting, bending, lifting, twisting
    • Improves with walking, changing positions, lying down
  • Tingling
  • Weakness

Tips & Treatment

  • Symptoms may be relieved with lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or participating in physician-recommended exercise.
  • Non-surgical treatment may include ice packs, anti-inflammatory medications, corticosteroid injections, physical therapy or complementary medicine, such as biofeedback and relaxation techniques.
  • Surgical treatment may be indicated in some cases, so seek the opinion of a well-qualified orthopedic physician.

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