What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is a common spinal condition in which the intervertebral discs in the spine gradually deteriorate. Despite its name, it's not a disease per se, since it's usually caused by aging rather than by a musculoskeletal abnormality. These cartilaginous discs provide a cushion between the vertebrae, reducing friction as they move against each other. Unfortunately, these discs naturally weaken over time, resulting in greater pressure on the vertebrae and the surrounding nerves.

What causes degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is usually caused by aging: over time, the discs become dehydrated and contract. Arthritis and osteoarthritis can also contribute to its onset by placing greater pressure on the discs, thereby increasing the risk of a rupture. Degenerative joint disorders can have the same effect.

Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

While many patients don't initially experience any noticeable symptoms of degenerative disc disease, the most common include slight to severe pain in the neck and upper back, numbness or tingling in the shoulders or arms, and muscle spasms. These symptoms may be exacerbated by sitting down, or by bending or twisting the spine. You should seek treatment right away if you're experiencing any of these symptoms.

Degenerative Disc Disease Treatments

Conservative Options

"Treatment for degenerative disc disease in the neck is generally conservative. Indeed, most of its symptoms can be alleviated or eliminated with some simple lifestyle adjustments. Your doctor will most likely begin by correcting your posture and referring you to a physical therapist.

Your physical therapy regimen will most likely entail regular massaging of the muscles in the neck and upper back (to keep them from further compressing your spine), along with strengthening exercises that engage the muscles supporting the spine. These exercises will help eliminate the pressure on your joints and increase space between them, reducing inflammation. If necessary, anti-inflammatories can alleviate pain as you work to rehabilitate your spine."


Degenerative disc disease rarely requires surgical intervention, but in more severe cases, surgery can restore stability to the spine. Should it be necessary, your doctor will refer you to a top spine surgeon, who can perform a procedure tailored to your condition: most commonly, they would either perform a discectomy (removing the damaged disc), joint reshaping, or nerve decompression in the spinal canal.


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