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Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease is a wear and tear of the discs between spinal bones (vertebrae). Healthy discs act like cushions to protect the spine and help it stay flexible.
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Causes may be:
- Drying out of discs due to the normal aging process
- Tears in the outer portion of the disc from sports, heavy lifting, or physical work
- Back injuries
This problem is more common in older adults. Other things that may raise the risk are:
Problems may be:
- Pain in the low back, buttocks, thighs, or neck
- Pain that worsens when sitting, bending, lifting, or twisting
- Pain that feels better when walking, changing positions, or lying down
- Numbness and tingling into the legs
- Weakness in the legs
- Inability to raise the foot at the ankle
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on the spine.
Images may be taken of the spine. This can be done with:
Your nerves may be evaluated. This can be done with an electromyogram and nerve conduction studies.
There is no cure. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms. Choices are:
- Supportive care, such as avoiding activities that cause pain and applying cold or warm compresses
- Physical therapy to improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion
- Medicines to ease pain, such as pain relievers and steroid injections
People who are not helped by these methods may need surgery. Choices are:
- Artificial disc replacement
- Spinal fusion to join two vertebrae together
The risk of this problem may be lowered by:
- Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise
- Not smoking
North American Spine Society
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
Degenerative Disc Disease. Hospital for Special Surgery website. Available at: https://www.hss.edu/condition-list%5Fdegenerative-disc-disease.asp. Accessed February 17, 2021.
Deyo RA, Mirza SK. CLINICAL PRACTICE. Herniated Lumbar Intervertebral Disk. N Engl J Med. 2016 May 5;374(18):1763-1772.
Low back pain. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: https://orthoinfo.org/en/diseases--conditions/low-back-pain. Accessed February 17, 2021.
Lumbar disk herniation. EBSCO Dynamed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/lumbar-disk-herniation. Accessed February 17, 2021.
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.
Shi WB, Agbese E, et a;. Performance of pain interventionalists from different specialties in treating degenerative disk disease-related low back pain, Arch Rehab Res Clin Trans. 2020; 2(3).
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Laura Lei-Rivera, PT, DPT
- Review Date: 12/2020
- Update Date: 02/17/2021