Degenerative Disc Disease

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease occurs when a disc in the middle or lower back (lumbar spine) or neck (cervical spine) deteriorates. Discs are located between each vertebra of the spine. They act as shock absorbers and help the spine flex. Discs cannot repair themselves back to normal. Once they are damaged, they start to break down. Degenerative disc di can go unnoticed or cause pain that ranges from mild to severe.

Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care in diagnosing and treating degenerative spine disease. You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.

Signs and Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary depending upon the location of the disc degeneration and can include:

  • Numbness and tingling in the hands, arms, legs and feet
  • Pain that ranges from annoying to severe
  • Pain in the lower back, buttocks and thighs
  • Pain in the neck that travels to the hands and arms
  • Pain gets worse when sitting, lifting, twisting or bending
  • Pain improves when walking or lying down
  • Pain can come and go, lasting from days to months
  • Weakness in the feet or toes that catch on the floor when walking

Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosis

To determine if someone has degenerative disc disease, we conduct a thorough physical examination, ask about medical history and how and when pain first occurred. We then use advanced diagnostic procedures and technology to effectively diagnose, inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Diagnostic procedures can include:

  • CT scan: X-rays and computers are used to create images of the spine and identify bony abnormalities, bone spurs or fractures.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI):A large magnet, radio waves and a computer are used to make pictures of the spine. A physician can look for loss of fluid in discs, enlarged joints, narrowed spinal canal (stenosis) or bulging (herniated) discs.
  • X-ray: This common imaging test is used to look for decreased space between discs, break-down of joints, bone spurs, hardened nerve bundles and spine problems when flexing legs or arms.

Degenerative Disc Disease Causes

There are several controllable factors that can lead to degenerative disc disease to be aware of, including:

  • Repetitive heavy lifting: Heavy lifting can cause small tears in the discs.

  • Smoking: Smoking is a leading risk factor for degenerative disc disease.

  • Injury: An injury to the portions of discs in your spine can cause degenerative disc disease.

  • Age: As you get older, discs can dry out.

Risk Factors

Degenerative disc disease risk factors include:

Activities: Daily tasks cause tears on the outside of the disc, as it absorbs impacts.

Age: Discs lose fluid over time.

Injuries: Blows to the spine from accidents, falls and violence can damage discs.

How to Prevent Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease cannot be prevented. However, you can take steps to lower your risk for complications of the condition:

Be active:

Moderate exercise helps strengthen abdominal and back muscles.

Maintain good posture:

Practice keeping the back straight with shoulders back.

Stop smoking:

Smoking damages blood vessels, diminishes blood supply to the spine and leads to accelerated disc degeneration.

Use proper body mechanics:

Lift heavy objects by using the back, not the legs, to avoid back strain.

Prognosis for Degenerative Disc Disease

The prognosis for degenerative disc disease depends on how worn the discs are and if treatment is followed to manage or improve symptoms. Most degenerative disc disease stabilizes over time with management, activity change and behavior modification. Left untreated, pain can worsen.

Treatment and Recovery

Degenerative disc disease treatment aims to lower pain symptoms and strengthen back muscles that support the spine. Treatment can include:


Exercising with Degenerative Disc Disease is a great way to strengthen the back muscles. Exercise that is usually recommended includes low-impact cardio and back strengthening exercises which should be reviewed by a physical therapist. Exercise will also prevent bone loss (osteoporosis) and reduce the risk of fractures. While exercise can help strengthen your muscles, it is important to speak with your physician before you start.


Steroid shots can diminish inflammation and nerve irritation.


Pain medications may be prescribed for mild to severe pain, inflammation, back ache, muscle strain, tight muscles and nerve-related pain.

Physical therapy

A physical therapist can help you learn the best way to stretch and prevent muscle spasms, regain strength and improve posture. Heat and ice may be placed where pain is located to relieve symptoms. Swimming may be recommended as a form of exercise that reduces pressure on the spine.


When the back is injured, it is important to rest for a few days. Lie on a firm mattress with a pillow underneath the legs to take pressure off the spine. Slowly begin to move but refrain from bending side to side or from lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds.


If the other treatments are not effective and pain continues, surgery may be necessary. Many times, disc surgery may be done using image-guided procedures and through minimally invasive procedures that result is less pain and a shorter recovery. Minimally invasive procedures include the endonasal technique for apical vertebra.

Nerve-related pain usually involves removing pressure on the nerve to allow it to recover. For some surgeries, tissue or bone that presses on nerves is removed. At times, when the cause of the pain is removed, the spine may become unstable. In those cases, fusion surgery may be done to make the spine sturdier. Another option for surgery is to replace a damaged disc with an artificial one. The new disc cushions surrounding vertebrae and helps the back or neck flex more easily. This also protects other levels of the spine at risk for accelerated degeneration.


Degenerative disc disease can cause these complications:

Bladder and bowel problems:

Difficulties in controlling or emptying the bowels can occur.


Stiffness can cause severe pain when trying to stretch the back or neck.

Nerve pain or damage:

Increased numbness, shooting pain in the limbs or weakness in one or both legs can occur.


The foot can drag (foot drop) if nerve damage weakens the leg muscles.

Related Conditions

Adjacent segment disease may cause degenerative changes in joints above and below the area of a spinal fusion.

Next Steps with MyChart

Discover MyChart, a free patient portal that combines your Baptist Health medical records into one location. Schedule appointments, review lab results, financials, and more! If you have questions, give us a call.