What is degenerative disc disease?
Degenerative disc disease is when the rubbery discs in the spine wear down. Degenerative disc disease is treated with lifestyle changes, medication, alternative therapies and surgery.
Sometimes, age can cause bones and joints to wear down. This can happen to the rubbery discs in your spine. This is called degenerative disc disease. Experts don’t fully understand why these wear down, but there are things you can do to manage your condition and symptoms.
Between the vertebrae of your spine are rubbery discs. These discs act as shock absorbers to keep your spine flexible. With age, and sometimes with injury, these discs wear down and the bones begin to rub on each other and cause pain.
The discs have two parts:
- A tough, outer layer that contains nerves
- A soft, inner layer that contains proteins
Discs are made of about 80% water but, compared to other tissues in the body, the discs have very low blood supply. If they are injured, they may not be able to repair themselves, which can lead to permanent damage.
Symptoms of degenerative disc disease
Degenerative disc disease symptoms include:
- Pain in the lower back, buttocks, neck, or thighs
- Pain when sitting that gets worse with time
- Pain that comes and goes
- Numbness or tingling in extremities
- Pain when lifting, twisting, or bending
- Pain relief during movement
- Weakness in the legs
- Foot drop, or difficulty raising the front of your foot
- Pinched or damaged nerves
Movement and switching positions often relieves pain.
Causes of degenerative disc disease
Degenerative disc disease is not considered a disease. It is typically back pain caused by deteriorating spinal discs. While it is not a disease, though, it may lead to arthritis. This deterioration has several causes, including:
- Discs drying out with age
- Injuries that cause damage, swelling, and instability
- Daily activities and sports
Who can get degenerative disc disease
Most people have some amount of disc degeneration by the age of 60, but not everyone has pain. Wear and tear on bones and joints is a normal part of the aging process. Anyone who engages in sports or has an injury to their back may develop degenerative disc disease.
Diagnosis for degenerative disc disease
Your doctor will take your medical history, a list of your symptoms, and perform a physical exam to check your muscles, nerves, pain, and mobility.
You may need some imaging tests like x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or computed tomography (CT) scan to see your spine and discs. They will check the structure of your spine and look at if your discs are collapsing or if you have bony projections on the joints called bone spurs.
Treatments for degenerative disc disease
Degenerative disc disease treatment focuses on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and relieving symptoms. You can do this with a variety of self-care practices and over-the-counter remedies.
You may be able to manage pain that lasts for a long time with over-the-counter medications or prescriptions from your doctor. These may include:
Other alternative therapies like over-the-counter herbal pain creams that contain cayenne, peppermint, wintergreen, or eucalyptus may be useful for relieving pain.
Home care and remedies
The best way to manage degenerative disc disease is through healthy lifestyle changes. To manage pain and improve the health of your joints, you can:
Other complementary or alternative therapies to manage symptoms may include:
Possible side effects and complications
Long-term use and overuse of pain relievers and non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs may cause damage to the intestines and kidneys. If you are experiencing chronic and significant pain, it is important to speak to your doctor about finding new ways to manage your condition.
Supplements and herbal preparations can interact with other medications you might be on and change how they work. You should speak to your doctor before using those to make sure they are appropriate for your health.
There is always a risk to spine surgery. These may include:
Medically Reviewed on 1/26/2021
Annals of Longterm Care: “Recognizing the Risks of Chronic Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug Use in Older Adults.”
Arthritis Foundation: “Degenerative Disc Disease.”
BMC Complementary Alternative Medicine: “Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate supplementation to treat symptomatic disc degeneration: Biochemical rationale and case report.”
Cedars-Sinai: “Degenerative Disc Disease.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Lumbar Disk Replacement.”
National Institute of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Low-Back Pain and Complementary Health Approaches: What You Need to Know.”