Degenerative Disc Disease: causes, symptoms, treatments.

What is degenerative disc disease?

Shining a light on degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease is a condition in which the discs in the spine deteriorate. A person with degenerative disc disease may experience numbness or tingling in hands or feet due to compression of nerves at any point below the part of the spine where symptoms are being experienced.

A common complaint with degenerative disc disease is back pain that worsens when sitting for long periods, bending over, or standing up from a seated position.

What is a spinal disc?

A spinal disc is a small yet vital component of the spine. Spinal discs are cushion-like sacs that act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae.

Labelled vertebral disc showing vertebral body, anulus fibrosus, and nucleus pulposus.

A spinal disc is a small yet vital component of the spine. Spinal discs are cushion-like sacs that act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae

It consists of two parts: an outer disc layer, called the annulus fibrosis called, and a soft inner disc layer, the nucleus pulposus.

When this cushion becomes thin, it causes pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots, leading to loss of mobility and other symptoms.

There are twenty-six spinal discs in total, found in the lumbar (lower back), thoracic (mid-back), and cervical (neck area) regions.

What are some causes of Degenerative Disc Disease?

There is no single cause of degenerative disc disease. Still, several risk factors increase your chances of developing it. For example, injury or trauma to the spine can cause degeneration over time. In addition, as you age, the damage done to your discs by injuries or other factors can cause them to degenerate.

Disc Degeneration is a condition that generally occurs as people age. It typically starts around the age of 30. Still, there are cases of younger individuals who suffer from this condition as well.

The following list of common causes of DDD may help you understand your condition better:

Sedentary lifestyle: Sedentary lifestyle is a major cause of DDD because it causes loss of muscle tone and low circulation to the discs. Lack of exercise can also lead to obesity, which puts more weight on already degenerated discs.

Genetics: Genetics may also play a role in DDD. Research shows that people whose parents have had back problems are more likely to develop degenerative disc disease.

Scheuermann Disease: also known as Scheuermann’s Disease or Juvenile Kyphosis, is a medical condition where the spine curves more than normal. 

Poor posture: People who suffer from DDD tend to hunch over due to the pain caused by this condition. Poor posture causes misalignments of the spine and can cause more pressure on the discs.

Excessive strain during physical activity: An example of this is weightlifting, which can cause extreme stress.

Micro trauma: Micro trauma is another form of injury that may cause degenerative disc disease and pain.

Whiplash: Whiplash is a common cause of DDD.

Infection: An infection in the spine can also cause DDD.

Trauma: Accidents that involve a hard blow to the back or upper body, such as those caused by accidents, may also lead to degenerative disc disease and pain.

Smoking: Smoking is another risk factor for DDD. According to researchers, smokers are more likely to develop the condition than nonsmokers.

Jobs with heavy lifting: People who work in heavy lifting jobs may also be at risk for DDD.

Exposure to certain chemicals, such as pesticides or solvents, can lead to degenerative disc disease by causing cell damage.

Extreme stress: Intense stress can also damage discs, leading to DDD.

Obesity: Being obese can put more strain on the spine and cause degenerative disc disease.

Exercising too much or too little: While too much exercising may not be best for your body, not exercising enough to keep muscles active can cause loss of muscle tone, which may lead to disc degeneration.

Sports/Physical Activity: Sports or activities, such as weightlifting, which place excess strain on the discs, are associated with DDD. 

Age: Age is a factor because it causes natural changes in the spine that can lead to DDD.

As you can see, there are many causes of degenerative disc disease.

These questions are often linked when discussing DDD.

What is a herniated disk?

Herniated disc pressing on spinal nerveHerniated disks occur when the outer lining of one of the spinal discs tears, and a portion of that disc pushes out into the soft center, which causes it to push against a nearby nerve. When this occurs, the result can be back pain or leg pain, depending on your location in the spine.

Herniated disks can occur in any part of the spine but are most common in the lower back (lumbar region).

What is a bulging disc?

Bulging discA bulging disc also occurs when a tear develops in the outer protective lining of a spinal disc and allows some of that material to push out into the soft middle of the disc. This material in the center of the disc presses against a nearby nerve causing possible pain in your back and leg.

Although similar to a herniated disk, you cannot see bulging discs with an MRI or CT Scan, so they are referred to as “hidden” hernias.

What is the difference between DDD and osteoarthritis?

Degenerative Disc Disease is the thinning of the cushioning disc between two vertebrae. As these discs degenerate, they can create bone spurs where the vertebrae contact, which may press on nerves and cause pain.

Although arthritis can cause similar symptoms, it generally affects both sides of the involved joint and other joints in the body.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica occurs when one or more discs along the spine push against a nearby nerve, causing pain that starts in your lower back and shoots down into your buttock, upper leg, and even sometimes to your foot.

This condition is commonly associated with herniated disc and degenerative disc disease.

What are the most common signs and symptoms?

  • Back pain worsens when sitting for long periods, bending over, or standing up from a seated position;
  • Lower back pain often starts between 30 and 50 years old. It may gradually become severe after many years if not treated.
  • Numbness or tingling in hands or feet due to compression of nerves;
  • Back pain that is associated with some upper body movements, such as coughing and sneezing; and/or
  • Legs feeling numb and weak.
Where do you commonly find degenerative disc disease
Other symptoms may include:
  • Loss of bladder control called incontinence;
  • Muscle weakness;
  • Leg pain that worsens when coughing or sneezing is considered to be an initial symptom of DDD.

Can poor posture cause disc degeneration?

How your spine is positioned can also worsen disc deterioration. Sitting for long hours in a poor posture, such as rounded upper back (kyphosis) can put pressure on discs and make disc degeneration worse over time.

Your posture can affect your disc problems – spinal discs have different shapes and sizes depending on where they are in the spine. As a result, too much slouching or carrying heavy loads can create disc pressure. To reduce spine disc pressure, practice good posture by keeping your head aligned with your shoulders and hips.

Disc problems can also impact your posture – if one disc is compressed or herniated, it might cause back or neck pain, leading to poor posture.

How is Degenerative Disc Disease diagnosed?

CT Scan as a way of diagnosing degerative disc disease
In diagnosing this condition, doctors use:


The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask patients questions about their symptoms and medical history. This information is used to help diagnose the cause of back pain and rule out other conditions that may be causing your symptoms. Imaging tests: These tests include X-rays, MRI, or CT scans which produce images of the inside of the back. These tests can help determine if a patient has herniated or bulging disks.


CT (computed tomography) scan is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to create cross-sectional images (often called slices). These show detailed views of areas inside the body.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): 

This test uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies, and a computer to create images of organs and structures within the body.

What treatment options are available?

The treatment for DDD depends on the severity of the condition. Still, various conservative treatments can help alleviate pain and thereby improve quality of life.

The goal of treatment initially is to control the pain so that the condition can be evaluated. For most people, measures such as rest, ice, medications, physical therapy, and an eventual return to normal activities will help the pain go away. However, if these measures don’t work, surgery may be an option.

Treatment options may include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen, which can provide pain relief;
  • Steroidal injections or epidural steroid injections (ESIs), which can help reduce inflammation and relieve pressure on nerves;
  • Prolotherapy, a regenerative injection therapy that helps the body repair injured ligaments and tendons;
  • Physical therapy to increase the flexibility of the back and strength of the core muscles;
  • Chiropractic, Osteopathic, or other manual therapy, which can help stabilize the spine and decrease pain;
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help reduce back pain by training the brain to change the way you think and behave;
  • Surgery: Surgical options for DDD include: laminotomy, microdiscectomy (removal of small disc fragments), discectomy (removal of the entire disc), spinal fusion, and spinal decompression.

Can you prevent DDD?

Many of the factors that cause DDD cannot be changed, such as age or genetics. However, there are several things you can do to reduce your risk for this condition. 

If you are in a high-risk group for DDD, speak with your doctor and other health care providers about ways to prevent this condition from developing or worsening. 

Lifestyle choices can be part of your plan to treat disc degeneration
You can also help prevent degenerative disc disease by:
  • Maintaining a healthy weight;
  • Eating a healthy diet; 
  • Exercising regularly, particularly strengthening and stretching exercises;
  • Getting plenty of physical activity;
  • Managing stress; and/or
  • Practicing good body mechanics and better posture awareness.

What if you have degenerative disc disease?

If you just got diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, don’t panic.

While DDD cannot be cured, several treatment options can help reduce pain and restore function. In addition, you may need a combination of treatments to help relieve your pain and improve your quality of life.

Non-surgical options alleviate discomfort but do not necessarily improve spinal functioning. While surgical options may be beneficial and fast-acting, but their long-term effects are uncertain.

If conservative treatments fail, surgery may be an option. However, some people progress to spinal stenosis or even spinal cord compression over time, so it is essential to manage DDD symptoms as soon as possible.


PostureGeek.com does not provide medical advice. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical attention. The information provided should not replace the advice and expertise of an accredited health care provider. Any inquiry into your care and any potential impact on your health and wellbeing should be directed to your health care provider. All information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical care or treatment.