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What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Despite what the name suggests, degenerative disc disease is not a disease, but a condition in which natural, age-related wear-and-tear on a disc causes pain, instability, and other symptoms. Disc degeneration is a natural part of aging, and over time everybody will exhibit some changes in their discs. However, a degenerating disc does not always cause symptoms to develop.


The spinal discs, which act like shock absorbers between the vertebrae of the spine, begin to break down and may not work as well with age. The disc change in ways that may cause degenerative disc disease such as:

  • Dry out: With increase in age, the spinal discs can start losing water and get thinner. Flatter discs cannot absorb shock as well.
  • Crack: Stress of everyday movements or minor injuries can cause tiny tears in the walls of spinal discs. The soft core of the disc may push through the cracks or tears and affect nearby nerves in the spine, causing pain.

Degenerative disc disease most commonly occurs in the cervical spine (neck) or the lumbar spine (lower back), as these areas of the spine undergo the most motion and are most susceptible to wear and tear.

Degenerative disc disease symptoms

A degenerating spinal disc does not always lead to pain or other symptoms. Pain usually occurs when the degenerating disc affects other structures in the spine (such as muscles, joint, or nerve roots close to the spinal disc). Inflammation can produce muscle tension, muscle spasms, and local tenderness in the back or neck. If a nerve root becomes inflamed, pain and numbness may radiate into the arm and shoulder (called cervical radiculopathy in cases of cervical disc degeneration), or into the hips or leg (called lumbar radiculopathy, in cases of lumbar disc degeneration).

Common symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:

  • 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

Degenerative disc disease treatment

Treatment is usually nonsurgical and includes:

  • Ice or cold treatment: Applying ice or a cold pack to a painful area of the spine can relieve pain by reducing inflammation, which can be helpful following exercise or activity.
  • Heat therapy: Using heat from a heating pad, warm bath or other heat source can relax the surrounding muscles and reduce tension and spasms
  • Medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin or ibuprofen can help fight inflammation to ease pain.
  • Physical Therapy: Specific exercise and rehabilitation can strengthen the neck and back muscles to give the spine more support and flexibility. The goals of exercise are to help the spine heal and prevent or reduce further recurrences of pain.
  • Epidural Steroid Injections: A steroid injected around the spine’s protective outer layer, or epidural space of the spine, can provide temporary pain relief, which helps to improve mobility.

In extreme conditions, a spinal fusion or artificial disc surgery may be necessary. It is important to be evaluated by an experienced surgeon. The board-certified, fellowship trained spine surgeons at Raleigh Orthopaedic are committed to providing the highest quality spine care to all of our patients in the treatment of all spine conditions. Our goal is to empower the patient with the tools that will assist them in returning to their highest level of function.


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Your well-being is important to us. Raleigh Orthopaedic is Wake County’s oldest and most experienced orthopedic practice, serving the Triangle and surrounding regions of central North Carolina since 1919. 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 Raleigh Orthopaedic 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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