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Health Library

Degenerative Disc Disease

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Normal aging is usually the process associated with the degeneration (breakdown) of the components that make up the spine. All of us eventually have these changes which may or may not cause discomfort. “Degenerative disc condition” may be a better term for this process. Involvement of the disc can, in some cases, cause neck or back pain and/or radiating symptoms into the arms or legs.

As we age, the vertebral discs (the cushions between the bones of the spine) lose height and “bulge” at their sides. Sometimes they tear and allow the inner part of the disc to protrude. This is a herniated (sometimes called a ruptured) disc. Both the bulging and herniated discs can contact the nearby nerve, causing pain.

Common Causes

By far, the most common cause of degenerative disc disease is aging. Trauma and some diseases can contribute to degenerative disc disease as well.


To receive a diagnosis, a qualified musculoskeletal expert will first take a medical history and conduct a physical exam. In some cases diagnostic tests such as x-rays, MRIs or other radiological tests may be ordered.

Severe disc degeneration can cause a decrease or loss of bowel or bladder control or numbness of the saddle (groin) area. Prompt medical attention is required in the case of these findings.


Symptoms of degenerative disc disease are commonly mild and tend to progress in intensity over time. Regular participation in an exercise program may improve mobility and function and decrease pain. Guidance by a physical therapist will help to establish an appropriate program. Yoga and Pilates as well as weight training and aquatic exercise (to name a few) can be very helpful. Massage, acupuncture, and other non-surgical treatments are also often effective. Oral non-steroidal and steroidal anti-inflammatory medication is frequently prescribed. Application of heat and cold can also provide help.

Surgical treatment of advanced degenerative disc disease is appropriate in some cases. There are a number of surgical procedures to consider and a discussion with a surgeon will identify the best option.

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