Disks lie between the spinal bones (vertebra). They serve as shock absorbers. This protects the spine and helps it stay flexible. Degenerative disk disease is wear and tear on these disks. This wear and tear causes pain and other symptoms. Some degeneration is normal as you age. Not all degeneration will result in symptoms of this disease.
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The disk is usually dehydrated, and not as resilient as normal. The fibrous tissue, which holds the disk material in place, may suffer small tears. These tears lead to further damage. There is some evidence that genetics may play a part for some people.
Factors that may incerase your chance for degenerative disk disease:
- Increased age
- Family history of degenerative disk disease
- Athletic activity
- Back injury
Symptoms of degenerative disk disease include:
- 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
- Periods of severe pain that gets better after a few days or months
- Numbness and tingling into the legs
- Weakness in the legs
- Foot drop (inability to raise the foot at the ankle)
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Other tests may include:
- Blood and/or urine tests to rule out other causes of pain
- MRI scan
—a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body
—a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially the bones
—dye is injected into the affected spinal area to get
clearer x-ray images
- EMG/NCV-a neurophysiologic test used in some cases to evaluate nerves which may be irritated or impinged on by a disk.
Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Treatment options include:
Therapy for this condition is focused on teaching you how to manage your back pain. This may involve:
- Posture training
- Ice packs
- Electrical stimulation
- Other forms of physical therapy
Steroid injections may be used for some short term pain relief. They are injected around the nerves exiting the spinal cord.
Surgery may be required for some. Surgery may involve removing the degenerated disk and fusing two of the vertebra together.
Take the following steps to help protect your spine:
Bogduk N, Anat D. Degenerative joint disease of the spine. Radiol Clin North Am. 2012;15(4):613-28.
Degenerative disc disease. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center website.
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Degenerative disk disease. University of Pittsburgh, Department of Neurosurgery website. Available at:
. Accessed July 2, 2007.
Paassilta P, Lohiniva J, Göring HH, et al. Identification of a novel common genetic risk factor for lumbar disk disease.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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