September 18, 2017

What is degenerative disc disease?

Diseases and Conditions | Neck, Back and Spine | Urgent Care

This post is part of The Ultimate Guide to Back Pain Relief

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is not a disease at all.  It is an accumulation of wear and tear of the flexible pad between your vertebrae called discs.  For most people the term degenerative implies that the symptoms will get worse with age. However, the term does not apply to the symptoms, but describes the process of the disc degeneration over time. Disc degeneration is a common cause of low back and neck pain.


The spine is made up of 24 bones, called vertebrae, which are stacked on top of one another. These bones connect to protect the spinal cord. The seven small vertebrae that begin at the base of the skull and form the neck comprise the cervical spine or neck.

The bones which have ribs attached to them to form your chest is called the thoracic spine. Then the five bones from your chest to your tailbone are the lumbar spine. Each bone is separated from the next by a flexible pad called a disc and movement is controlled by smaller joints called facets.

The spinal canal is a bony tube that goes from the base of the skull all the way to the tailbone.  It serves as the highway along which the spinal cord and nerves pass from your head to the rest of your body.  Interestingly, the spinal cord ends halfway down your back, generally at T12 or L1.

Your spinal cord and nerves travel through the spinal canal carrying messages between your brain and muscles. The intervertebral discs between your vertebrae are flexible, flat and round discs and are about a half-inch thick. They act as shock absorbers when you walk or run and allow motion between the vertebrae.

Ultimate Guide to Back Pain Relief


Disc degeneration is a natural part of aging. Overtime, people will exhibit changes in their discs consistent with a greater or lesser degree of degeneration. This disc degeneration is one possible cause of back pain.  There are many other possible causes, some of which we don’t even know about yet.

However, sometimes the degeneration causes bone spurs, which pinch nerves going to one or both legs, and leads to radiating pain called “sciatica.” Some of these conditions include spinal stenosis, degenerative spondylolisthesis or ruptured discs. This is why a physician often tries to figure out if a patient has mostly back pain or mostly leg pain.

Degenerative disc disease symptoms

  • Pain in the neck or back related to activity
  • Severe episodes of back or neck pain that can last a few days to months
  • Pain lessens with frequent position changes
  • Pain can lessen when walking or running and worsen with prolonged sitting or standing
  • Pain that is in the center of the back or neck that is not particularly worse on one side or the other; It tends to not radiate down the legs below the knee or into the arms from the neck

Physician examination

To determine whether you are experiencing symptoms related to degenerative disc disease your physician will ask you for a complete medical history, have you describe your symptoms and conduct a physical examination and review imaging studies. While an X-rayCT scan, and/or MRI can help, it is the combination of your pain pattern, physical examination and imaging studies that helps narrow down the search for back pain cause.

Make an appointment with an OrthoIndy spine surgeon.

Degenerative disc disease treatment

Treatment is usually nonsurgical and includes:

  • Pain control such a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen
  • Exercise and rehabilitation to strengthen back muscles

In extreme conditions, a spinal fusion or artificial disc surgery may be necessary. That’s one reason a thorough evaluation by an experienced surgeon is needed to determine whether a more serious problem may exist or if one of the unusual situations of back pain may respond to surgery. After spinal fusion surgery, your spine physician may suggest physical therapy.

Learn more about treatment options for neck and back pain at OrthoIndy.

Schedule an appointment

Your well-being is important to us. Click the button below or call us to schedule an appointment with one of our orthopedic specialists. If your injury or condition is recent, you can walk right into one of our OrthoIndy Urgent Care locations for immediate care. For rehabilitation and physical therapy, no referral is needed to see one of our physical therapists.

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