What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Throughout your life you have probably heard the terms bulging, herniated, or slipped disc. Another name for these conditions is degenerative disc disease. Our intervertebral discs are rubber spacer-like objects that reside between our spinal vertebrae and fulfill several vital functions.

First and foremost, our spinal discs act as shock absorbers, permitting our spinal vertebrae to absorb vertical or horizontal forces without knocking into one another and cracking. Without this shock-absorbing capability, humans wouldn’t be able to engage in any moderately athletic activity; and our spinal vertebrae would also wear down extremely quickly—like a bone that’s missing all of its ligaments.

Spinal discs also act as spacers between the bones in our spine, reserving room for nerves to radiate outward from our spinal cord to our arms and legs. As time goes by, our intervertebral discs lose their ability to hold water. Their spongy, cushioned texture starts to deflate, pinching down on these nerves and decreasing the shock absorption between our vertebrae.

What are the Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?

General Symptoms:

Although the word “degenerative” implies that Degenerative Disc Disease is a progressive disorder that will worsen over time, this is not strictly the case. Instead, Degenerative Disc Disease refers to the set of symptoms that result from the deterioration of a single intervertebral disc. Warning signs of Degenerative Disc Disease may include:

  • Intermittent pain that is aggravated by specific activities (for example: rotating the spine; lifting a heavy object; or bending forward at the waist, etc.)
  • Pain that intensifies with prolonged inactivity (for example: sitting for extended periods of time)
  • Random episodes of severe pain which radiates from the location of the worn-out disc in the spine and into the limbs
  • Decreased mobility from diminished flexibility of the spine and/or chronic pain
  • Emergency Symptoms: Contact emergency medical services immediately if your pain becomes debilitating or your symptoms include loss of bowel or bladder control, paralysis, or unrelenting numbness in your buttocks and legs.

Degenerative Disc Disorder affects not only the actual bones of our spine, but also the nerves that poke out from in-between those vertebrae.  For these reasons, the symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease can be categorized according to the region of spinal nerve compression. These location-specific symptoms often include the following:

Lumbar (Lower Back) Symptoms

Individuals who suffer from a degenerated spinal disc in the lumbar spine often report symptoms associated with sciatica—or pain that radiates from the sciatic nerve in the lower back and into the legs or feet. A limited range of pain-free motion in the lumbar spine may also result in difficulties with bending over, twisting the spine, or lifting.

Cervical (Neck) Symptoms

Cervical symptoms of a degenerated spinal disc in the neck may render glancing over the shoulder or raising the chin extremely difficult. Cervical Radiculopathy—or tingling pain that emanates from the cervical spine and into your shoulders and arms—can interfere with your ability to sleep or disrupt your hand eye coordination.

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What are the Treatments for Degenerative Disc Disease?

Non-Surgical Treatments:

Before considering surgical options to repair a degenerated disc—and under normal, non-emergency circumstances—a qualified spine specialist will prescribe a combination of activity modifications and pain management techniques. These noninvasive interventions, which enable many individuals to avoid the need for surgery altogether, may include:

  • Bed rest or alternately administering heat and ice to the injured area
  • Non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory, or pain relievers to ease acute discomfort
  • At-home stretching exercises or a regimen of physical therapy
  • Manual spinal manipulation from a knowledgeable and qualified chiropractor
  • Steroid injections to decrease inflammation at the site of “screaming” nerves

Individuals who suffer from severe degenerative disc disease and fail to witness satisfactory improvements in their condition after 6 months of conservative treatment may qualify for surgical intervention. Our Harvard-educated, board certified surgeon, Dr. Frazier, has over 20 years of surgical experience with DDD and may recommend:

Artificial Disc Replacement

A sophisticated procedure to treat degenerative disc disease, this minimally invasive technique involves removal and replacement of a damaged intervertebral disc with an artificial model. Instead of hindering the motion of your neck with an unnecessary fusion procedure, this artificial disc allows you to retain normal range of motion in your spine.


TLIF stands for Transforaminal Lumbar Discectomy with Interbody Fusion. Although a TLIF is a spinal fusion procedure, this minimally invasive technique—unlike traditional lumbar fusion surgeries—is performed through a 1-inch incision. This method enables your surgeon to extract degenerated disc material, with minimal scarring or tissue damage.

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