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Degenerative Disk Disease : Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

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Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a common health condition in older adults. Many people experience some spinal degeneration after the age of 40. The proper treatment can provide relief from pain and increase mobility.

This blog dives deep into degenerative disc disease (DDD), its causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

What is DDD?

DDD is a health condition that occurs if one or more discs in the back lose their strength. Despite the name, DDD is technically not a disease. It is a progressive condition caused because of wear and tear or injury.

The spinal discs are situated between the vertebrae. They act as shock absorbers and cushions. Discs also help people move, bend and twist comfortably. This condition may progressively worsen over time. Degenerative disc disease typically consists of low-level chronic pain with intermittent episodes of more severe pain.

What are the symptoms of DDD?

The following are the symptoms of DDD:

  • Enhanced pain when performing activities such as bending or twisting and lifting heavy objects
  • Experiencing increased ‘giving out’ sensation where the neck and back may not provide essential support, making everyday movement difficult. It is due to spinal stability.
  • Muscle spams are one of the common effects of DDD. However, in some instances, the condition may not cause any symptoms, but muscle spasms can be severely agonizing and incapacitating.
  • An individual may likely experience sharp, stabbing, and radiating pain in several body parts. In cervical disc degeneration, the pain is experienced in the shoulders, arms, and hands  – called cervical radiculopathy. However, in the case of lumbar disc degeneration, the pain is developed in the hips, buttocks, and the back of the leg. It is called lumbar radiculopathy.
  • Enhanced pain when performing daily activities such as sitting or standing for an extended period, looking at a cell phone or reading a book.
  • Minimized pain when changing position from sitting or standing for an extended period of time. Also, regularly performing neck stretching exercises may reduce cervical disc pain, and short, frequent walks during the day may minimize lumbar disc pain.
  • Reduced pain in certain positions, including sitting in a reclining position, lying down with a pillow beneath the knee, or under the neck to maintain the neck’s natural curvature during sleep. The pain severity may range from no pain to severe and excruciating pain for different people.

What are the causes of DDD?

The wear and tear of spinal discs typically cause this condition. Generally, discs tend to dry out and lose support and function as people age. It can cause pain and other symptoms. DDD can start to develop when people are in their 30s or 40s and progressively worsen afterwards.

Injury and tears from sports or repetitive activities can cause DDD. A disc cannot repair itself if it is damaged.

What are the risk factors for DDD?

Age is the most vital risk factor for DDD. However, other factors can increase the process of degeneration. They include:

  1. Obesity
  2. Strenuous physical work
  3. Tobacco smoking
  4. An acute or sudden injury, like a fall

What are the complications of DDD?

Advanced forms of DDD can cause osteoarthritis (OA) in the back. In this form of OA, the vertebrae rub together as no discs are left to cushion them, resulting in back pain and stiffness and severely restricting the activities that people can comfortably perform.

Exercise is vital for overall health, particularly for patients suffering from back pain-related issues or DDD. Decreased mobility or immobility can increase peoples’ risk for:

  1. Depression
  2. Worsening pain
  3. Reduced muscle tone
  4. Decreased flexibility in the back
  5. Blood clots in the legs

When to seek medical help?

If the treatment option fails or the pain worsens, immediately consult a doctor.

How is DDD treated?

The treatments for this condition can include the following:

1. Heat or cold therapy

Cold packs can help minimize pain related to a damaged disc, whereas heat packs can decrease the inflammation causing the pain.

2. Over-the-counter medications

Acetaminophen can help ease the pain from DDD. Ibuprofen can reduce pain and inflammation. Both these medications could cause side effects. Therefore patients must consult the doctor about the drug that suits them.

3. Prescription pain relievers

Patients with DDD could consider prescription pain relievers when over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers fail to provide relief. People should consider these options carefully because they carry the risk of dependency and must be used only in cases when the pain is severe.

4. Physical therapy

A therapist guides patients through routines that help strengthen their back muscles and ease the pain. Over time, people may notice pain, posture, and overall mobility improvements.

5. Surgery

The doctor may suggest an artificial disc replacement or a spinal fusion depending on the severity of the condition. A patient may require surgery if the pain worsens. Artificial disc replacement involves the replacement of the disc with a new one made from plastic and metal. Doctors use spinal fusion to permanently connect two or more vertebrae in the spine, ending the friction between them. The surgeon could use one of the few spinal decompression surgeries, including discectomy, foraminotomy, laminectomy etc

How is exercise helpful in preventing DDD?

Exercise can complement the other treatments for this condition by strengthening the muscles around the damaged discs. It can also improve blood flow to ease painful swelling. Gentle yoga and stretching throughout the day can improve posture and reduce tension. People can do these stretches at their desks to minimize work-related back and neck pain.

How can people prevent DDD?

People can prevent or reduce the progression of spinal degeneration with lifestyle changes, including:

  1. Attaining and maintaining a healthy body weight
  2. Quitting or avoiding smoking
  3. Exercising regularly to improve strength and flexibility


DDD could progress and cause more symptoms without treatment or therapy. While doctors can consider surgery for DDD, other less invasive treatments and therapies can be helpful and may be less expensive. While spinal discs do not repair themselves, various treatments can help people be active and free of pain.

 Frequently Asked Questions

Does DDD increase the risk for other conditions?

Degenerated disks may increase the risk of developing other spinal conditions. Common spine problems include the following:

  1. Osteoarthritis
  2. Spinal stenosis
  3. Scoliosis
  4. Spondylolisthesis
  5. Spondylolysis

How common is intervertebral disk degeneration?

Almost every individual has some disk degeneration after 40, even if they do not develop symptoms. This condition can cause back pain in about 5% of adults.

How is DDD diagnosed? After a detailed medical history, a doctor may use imaging scans such as X-rays, CT or MRI to examine the state and alignment of the discs. The doctor could also conduct a physical exam to check the nerve function, levels of pain, and strength of the muscles.

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