Degenerative disc disease is a term used to describe the normal changes in your spinal discs as you age. It can occur throughout the spine, but generally affects the lower back and the neck, resulting in osteoarthritis, herniated discs, or spinal stenosis.

Because disc degeneration is a natural part of aging, over time all people will exhibit changes in their discs to a greater or lesser degree of degeneration.

The Cause

As we age, our spinal discs break down, or degenerate, which may result in degenerative disc disease in some people. These age-related changes include:

The loss of fluid in your discs.

This reduces the ability of the discs to act as shock absorbers and makes them less flexible. Loss of fluid also makes the disc thinner and narrows the distance between the vertebrae.

Back Pain

Tears in the outer layer of the disc.

The jellylike material inside the disc, or the nucleus, may be forced out through the tears in the capsule, which causes the disc to bulge, rupture, or break into fragments.

A sudden injury, such as a fall, can lead to a herniated disc and begin the degeneration process.

As the space between the vertebrae gets smaller, the spine becomes less stable. The body reacts by forming bone spurs that puts pressure on the spine, which results in pain and affects nerve function.

The Treatment

Degenerative disc disease is diagnosed with a physical exam, after which your doctor will suggest a treatment. Treatment typically includes:

Ice or heat on the affected area.

This will relieve pain, as well as the use of acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen or naproxen). Your doctor can prescribe stronger medicines if needed.

physical therapy

Severe cases may require more.

If you develop health problems such as osteoarthritis, a herniated disc, or spinal stenosis, you may need other treatments. These include physical therapy and exercises for strengthening and stretching the back.

In some cases, surgery may be recommended for degenerative disc disease. Surgery usually involves removing the damaged disc. As an alternative, stem cell therapy may be a less invasive solution.