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A degenerative disc is a type of back pain caused by worn-down vertebral discs is called degenerative disc disease.

In a young and healthy back, rubbery discs between the vertebra provide height and allow bending and twisting. As a normal process of aging, the discs begin to wear down. Sometimes the discs wear away completely over time. The bones rub against one another, causing the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis. After age 40, most people have some disc degeneration, but not always with pain.

Not actually a disease, degenerative disc disease is a condition in which pain is caused by a disc that wears down.

Several factors can cause discs to degenerate, including:

  • Drying out of the disc with age.
  • Tears in the outer portion of the disc due to daily activities and sports.
  • Injury.

Unlike other tissues of the body, there is very little blood supply to the disc, so once a disc is injured, it cannot repair itself, and the disc can start to deteriorate.

Symptoms of degenerative disc disease are most commonly found in the low back or neck. The pain may:

  • Range from mild to severe and disabling.
  • Primarily affect the neck and lower back.
  • Extend to the arms and hands.
  • Radiate to the buttocks and thighs.
  • Worsen when sitting or after bending, lifting or twisting.
  • Come and go.
  • Cause weakness in the leg muscles or foot drop, which may be a sign of damage to the nerve root.

To diagnose degenerative disc disease, the doctor will review the medical history and conduct a physical exam. The doctor may order imaging tests like X-rays, a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI), or computed tomography (CT) scan to get a better look at the discs and bony structures. This can help make the diagnosis.

Treatments focus on strengthening the muscles that support the back and relieving symptoms and may include:

  • Physical therapy.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, naproxen sodium) or pain relievers (acetaminophen).
  • Injections of corticosteroids into the disc space.
  • Surgery: artificial disc replacement, spinal fusion.

Learn more about the medications to treat degenerative disc disease at arthritis drug guide.

One of the best ways to take care of degenerative disc disease is to take a proactive role in your treatment.
You can:

  • Try heat and cold therapy.
  • Do physical therapy exercises at home.
  • Modify activities that aggravate your back, but don’t become sedentary.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.