Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease happens when one or more discs between the vertebrae (bones in your spine) wear down. Discs act like a cushion between your vertebrae and help to stabilize your spine. Degenerative disc disease commonly occurs in the neck or lower back as you get older.

What increases my risk for degenerative disc disease?

  • A previous herniated disc or spinal injury
  • A job that requires heavy, physical work
  • Obesity
  • Inherited genes
  • Smoking

What are the signs and symptoms of degenerative disc disease?

Your symptoms may depend on where you have the degenerative disc. You may have headaches or neck, shoulder, or lower back pain that gets worse with activity.

How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?

An x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may show signs of disc degeneration. You may be given contrast dye to help the spinal canal show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is degenerative disc disease treated?

  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask how to take this medicine safely.
  • Physical therapy may be recommended to decrease pain and help improve movement and strength. A physical therapist may also do spinal decompression to stretch and open the area between your vertebrae.
  • Spinal injections may help to decrease pain and inflammation around the disc.
  • Surgery may be needed if other treatments do not work. You may need surgery on the vertebrae, spinal fusion, or a disc replacement.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Avoid activities that make your symptoms worse. Ask your healthcare provider for ways to decrease your symptoms. Certain stretches or exercises may relieve your symptoms. Ask how to stay active without further injury.
  • Apply heat or ice as directed. Heat or ice may help decrease pain, inflammation, or muscle spasms.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, weight loss may help improve your symptoms. Ask your healthcare provider to help you create a weight loss plan if you are overweight.
  • Find ways to manage your stress. Behavioral therapy may help you learn ways to manage stress and decrease pain. Ask for more information about behavioral therapy.
  • Do not smoke. If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Ask for information if you need help quitting.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your pain gets worse, or you cannot control it with pain medicine.
  • Your symptoms get worse.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe pain or weakness, or you cannot move your arm or leg.
  • You lose control of your bladder or bowels.