Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease is the result of the spinal discs wearing down, causing pain around the area of the worn-down disc. The discs of the spine act as shock absorbers for the bones of your spine, called vertebrae. If the discs begin to degenerate, the vertebrae have less cushion, protection and shock absorption.

Signs and symptoms

The exact location of your symptoms depends on the location of the degenerative disc. Common symptoms include:

  • Sharp or constant pain in the lower back, buttocks, upper thighs or neck which
    • Is worsened with inactivity or bending, lifting or twisting
    • Is better with movement or lying down
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Weakening of the leg muscles


Diagnosis of degenerative disc disease starts with a physical exam and medical history. Other procedures and tests may be needed to diagnose this condition, including x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Treatment options

There are several treatment options depending on the severity of your symptoms:

  • Medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Epidural steroid injections. These are used to inject a steroid and a local anesthetic into the space around your spine to help decrease inflammation and swelling, typically leading to improvement in pain in your neck, arms, back and legs. This procedure is performed in either the office or surgery center setting and typically takes just a few minutes.
  • Minimally invasive posterior discectomy. This surgery is usually recommended to prevent further loss of function. Your surgeon will remove bone and ligament to get access to the spinal canal. Using a microscope, the nerve will be identified and the pressure on it will be taken off by removing disc material. During this surgery, no fusion will be performed. Surgery usually takes 1 – 2 hours and typically you go home the same day.
  • Artificial disc replacement. This is an alternative to fusion. The goal of surgery remains the same: to get the pressure off the nerves or spinal cord and relieve the symptoms. The difference is that once this goal has been achieved, an artificial disc maintains motion at that level, whereas a fusion stops all motion at the surgical level. An artificial disc, which can be made from many different materials depending on the manufacturer, is put into the space where the disc is removed. This artificial disc has to be placed precisely so that it provides similar motion to the original disc.
  • Decompression and fusion surgery. This procedure is performed to take pressure off of the nerves in the lower back and to treat or prevent instability of the lower spine. The surgery is performed through an incision where your surgeon will remove a window of bone—a procedure called a laminectomy—as well as ligament and parts of the joints of the spine to take the pressure off of the nerves. The fusion portion of the procedure involves using screws and rods to connect bones of the spine together, along with placing bone graft material from your own bone, cadaver or artificial bone material. These bone materials will grow over time, typically 6 – 12 months, and fuse the bones of the spine together.

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