Medical Library: Back & Spine – Degenerative Disk Disease

Degenerative disk disease is usually the result of the natural aging process, and is one cause of back and neck pain – it is a type of osteoarthritis of the spine.

The spine is made up of vertebrae that are stacked on top of one another with a rubbery piece of cartilage called an intervertebral disk in between each one. When we’re young the disk is made mostly of gelatin, but as we age, and sometimes with injury or excessive wear and tear, we start to lose some of that gelatin, and the volume of the disk decreases, resulting in less space between the vertebrae. The disk becomes flatter and less flexible, leaving less space between each set of vertebrae. Sometimes bone spurs form in response to this degeneration of the disk, making the spine stiff. When the rough surfaces of the vertebral joints rub together, pain and inflammation may result. Nerves may become irritated or compressed.

Disk degeneration might be limited to one disk or it might occur throughout several regions of the spine. When it’s part of the natural aging process, the degeneration does not always lead to pain. For some people, however, it can cause a great deal of pain and disability.

You are more likely to develop degenerative disk disease if you are a smoker, are obese, do heavy physical work or if you don’t get much exercise.

You might have mild to intense neck and back pain—or no pain at all. A degenerative disk in the neck can cause pain in the arm, shoulder, or neck, while a degenerative disk in the low back might cause pain in the back, buttocks, or legs.

The pain is often made worse by sitting, bending, and reaching. It may be worse first thing in the morning and after staying in any one position for a long time.

In severe cases, when DDD results in pressure on the nerves, it can lead to numbness, tingling, and even weakness in the arms or legs.