Medical Library: Head & Neck – Degenerative Disk Disease/Herniated Disk

Degenerative Disk Disease is the degradation of the pieces of the spine over time, which can lead to pain and discomfort. The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae that are stacked on top of one another with a rubbery piece of cartilage called an intervertebral disk in-between each vertebrae. As we age, and sometimes with injury or excessive wear and tear, we start to lose some of the gelatin in the cartilage, 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. Eventually, when the rough surfaces of the vertebral joints rub together, pain and inflammation may result, and nerves may become irritated or compressed.

Disk degeneration might occur throughout several regions of the spine, or it might be limited to one disk. While it’s part of the natural aging process, for some people, however, it can cause a great deal of pain and disability. 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. 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.