Understanding Degenerative Disc Disease

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Man putting his hands on his back
Photo: iStock

Degenerative disc disease is a common condition that affects the spine, causing pain and discomfort. It occurs when the discs between the vertebrae in the spine become worn down and no longer provide adequate cushioning and support.

Symptoms include pain in the lower back, neck, and other areas of the body, as well as stiffness, numbness, and tingling. Treatment options may include physical therapy, medications, and surgery.

In addition, making lifestyle changes and taking preventive measures can help reduce the risk of developing degenerative disc disease. This article will provide an overview of the causes, symptoms, treatments, and prevention of degenerative disc disease.

What Happens to Your Spine When You Have Degenerative Disc Disease?

Human spine anatomy section and spinal concept as medical health care body symbol with the skeletal bone structure and intervertebral discs closeup as a 3D illustration
Illustration of the human spine. Discs are the blue sections. Photo: iStock

As mentioned, degenerative disc disease is a condition that involves the breakdown of the substances found within the vertebrae, which are called the discs.

The discs (blue areas in the picture) act as cushions and are made of a jelly-like substance called the intervertebral disc. There are 24 of them in the spine and over time, they can deform, especially when under a lot of pressure, causing them to become thinner and more brittle. When this happens the gel will leak out and the disc will press against the surrounding nerves, consequently sending pain signals to the brain.

What are the Symptoms?

Woman with hands on her back
Photo: Free Images

The symptoms can vary, depending on the location of the decay. In the lower back, you may feel pain, stiffness, and difficulty standing up, especially after sitting for an extended period.

If the discomfort occurs in the lumbar region of the back, you may also feel pressure or numbness in your legs. If the degeneration occurs in the cervical region of the spine, it may cause pain in the neck and upper back, as well as tingling or numbness in the arms.

Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease

Seniors might not like hearing this but it is a natural part of the aging process. However, a decline of the discs can also occur in younger people who are involved in frequent or heavy lifting, poor posture, or inadequate core strength. 

As people age, their discs can break down and the cartilage that cushions the spine begins to wear. Below is a list of possible reasons why you may encounter disc degeneration:

      • Age: As mentioned, your spine may encounter disc degeneration as you get older.
      • Poor posture: When a person constantly slouches, they are putting more pressure on their spine, which can cause the discs to break down faster. 
      • Excessive lifting: If you frequently lift heavy objects, you increase your risk of putting too much pressure on your spine and increasing the risk of disc breakdown. 
      • Genetic factors: Some people are more likely to develop degenerative disc disease than others.


Most doctors will diagnose this disc breakdown based on your symptoms. They may order imaging tests, such as X-rays or MRIs, to rule out other conditions and to see the extent of the degeneration. MRIs are more effective at detecting degeneration than X-rays.


Treatments will depend on the severity of your symptoms and the location of the degeneration. If you have mild degenerative disc disease, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as increasing changing your posture and avoiding heavy lifting.

Try These Pain-Reducing Options First

      • Exercise: There are numerous exercises you can do that are specifically catered to back pain
        Weight Loss: Losing weight reduces the pressure on your disks when you are lying down
      • New Mattress: Many people, as well as experts state that a new mattress may be helpful, especially if your mattress is old. But you have to get the correct one. Getting a mattress where your feet can be raised can also benefit you. Speak to your doctor. Get the information you need about a good mattress, then go to a mattress store and tell them what you need.
      • Pain Management: These medical professionals specialize in managing pain. Most likely, they will suggest physical therapy.

If your symptoms are moderate to severe, your physician may recommend non-surgical treatments, such as physical therapy, chiropractic care, or possibly acupuncture. If your symptoms are severe and you don’t respond positively to non-surgical treatments, your doctor may recommend surgery.


Although the decay of the spine’s discs is a natural part of the aging process, it can lead to severe pain and discomfort in some people, and in some cases, surgery may be necessary to fuse two or more vertebrae in the spine and prevent them from rubbing against each other. 

The surgery is known as a spinal fusion, and it is often recommended for people as a last resort if the other treatments have failed to respond adequately. The surgery may be recommended for people who have severe degenerative disc disease in the lumbar region of the spine, have a herniated disc in the lumbar region, or have a degenerative disc disease that causes instability in the cervical region.

Depending on the location of the degeneration, the surgery will vary. For example, lumbar degenerative disc disease will usually be treated with lumbar spinal fusion. Cervical degenerative disc disease will usually be treated with cervical spinal fusion.

Lifestyle Changes Can Help Reduce the Risk of Degenerative Disc Disease

Elderly couple jogging
Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

As mentioned above, certain lifestyle changes can help reduce the risk of developing decaying discs. It is important to note that no one knows exactly what causes the disease, so it can be difficult to prevent. However, there are some things you can do to help protect your spine, including: 

      • Maintaining a healthy weight: Being overweight can put extra pressure on your spine and increase your risk of developing degenerative disc disease. 
      • Practicing good posture: Maintaining good posture can reduce the stress on your spine by as much as 80%, which can help prevent the discs from breaking down. 
      • Engaging in core-strengthening exercises: Exercises such as Pilates, yoga, and lifting weights can help strengthen the core muscles, which can reduce the risk of back pain. 
      • Avoid heavy lifting: If you don’t have to lift heavy objects, try to find ways to get around them.

Preventive Measures

You can take preventive measures to reduce your risk of degenerative disc disease by engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and practicing good posture.

If you have a family history of degenerative disc disease, you may want to have your doctor perform an MRI to see if you have any signs of it in your discs. If you do, you can work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan to help prevent the degeneration from getting worse. 


What to Do About Back Pain!

Overview – Back Pain

Man putting his hands on his back
Photo: iStock

Back pain is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. It’s also one of the most common reasons why people cannot continue working. The pain is so common that it’s been called “the New Normal”.

This type of discomfort can be caused by several number of factors, including an unhealthy lifestyle and genetics. You may have Degenerative Disc Disease. If so, the options below may be of help, but we recommend you see your medical provider as well. 


Two Men Exercising on Mat
Photo: Graphicstock

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to avoid health issues. Regularly exercising can strengthen your muscles, improve your posture and prevent future discomfort or pain.

When it comes to your spine, it’s best to avoid certain exercises that may irritate it, such as lifting heavy weights. Rather, focus on efforts that can strengthen your spine and core muscles, such as yoga, Pilates, walking, and swimming.

Also, consider gentle stretches in your daily routine. Exercising regularly can also help in managing stress, which can play an integral part in triggering the pain and discomfort you may be feeling.

Additionally, it’s important to consider the type of shoes you wear and what impact they may have on your posture and health.

Identify the Cause of Your Pain

If you can, pin down why you are having this discomfort. Is it from a previous injury or sports-related? Or are you just waking up feeling this in the morning? 

Whatever it can be targeted to, it can help you determine the best course of action for treating your pain. Additionally, some common causes include a weak core, bad posture, poor sleeping habits, incorrect lifting techniques, and spinal injuries.

If you suffer from frequent or recurring pain, you should visit your doctor to determine the cause and get the proper treatment and management plan. If you have on-off episodes of pain, you may be able to treat it on your own at home.

Breathe and Relax

Young man in shorts sitting and meditating on a beach bed
Photo Graphicstock

Relaxation exercises help reduce stress, which often plays a part in triggering pain or discomfort in the spine. Additionally, deep breathing can help improve your posture.

To do deep breathing exercises, find a quiet place to sit, relax your muscles, and focus on your breathing.

You can also do this lying down or even while you’re walking! By taking a few minutes every day to focus on these techniques, you may at the very least, feel a little better. These exercises help with mental stimulation as well.

Get a Professional Massage or Bodywork

Woman getting a massage
Image by Mario from Pixabay

Most people would jump at the suggestion to get a massage and why not? Regularly receiving massage therapy or other types of bodywork is another excellent home remedy for many types of pain-related ailments.

These treatments can help improve your flexibility and range of motion. If you suffer from frequent or recurring pain, you could visit a massage therapist or bodywork practitioner to help manage your pain and discomfort.

Massage treatments may provide short-term pain relief, but they are not long-term treatment plans. It’s also important to consider the type of massage you receive. Deep tissue massage and myofascial release therapy are two types of massage that may be beneficial for managing spine-related pain.

Make a Scheduled Commitment to Stretching

Woman exercising on the beachRegularly making a committed effort to stretch and relax your muscles can help you as well. There are many different stretches you can perform to target different areas of your body and promote flexibility.

For your spine, try lying face-down on the floor and pulling both knees towards your chest, gently extending your arms out in front of you. You can also try sitting in a chair with both feet flat on the ground and slowly leaning back, keeping it straight, and extending your arms straight out so that they are parallel with the floor. Remember that regimens of stretching and relaxation are best performed slowly and gently.

Lay on a Heat-Filled Blanket

Feeling the warmth from a heated blanket can provide you with both a comforting feeling and the added benefit of soothing your vertebrae and muscles.

A heated blanket can help improve blood flow and circulation, which can, in turn, alleviate pain. If you have a heated blanket, simply turning it up to a high temperature will suffice.

Note that using a heated blanket is not recommended while you’re asleep. Doing so may disrupt your sleep, which is not a good idea if you are experiencing pain. Instead, try doing this for about 15 minutes before bedtime.

There are a variety of counter-heating remedies, such as heating pads available at your local retail store.

What is Your Mattress Like?

Studies have shown that a poor or old mattress may be a factor in back pain, especially if you have Degenerative Disc Disease. The reason is that a bad mattress will cause your body to exert pressure on the damaged discs, resulting in the pain you feel in the morning when you wake up.

Reclining mattress
Photo: iStock

A new mattress that allows your body to ‘sink’ in can relieve some of the pressure on the discs. Additionally, consider getting a mattress base that can move up and down. With this option, you can push a button and the base at your feet will rise, providing reduced pressure on your body, especially the lumbar area where the discs reside.

We know buying a new mattress along with a movable base can get expensive, but it is will be well worth it if you see that your pain has subsided. Many mattress companies give you a 30-day option to try it out and return it if it is not working for you.


TENS, which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation delivers small electrical impulses to your body to help with the pain and discomfort associated with pain.

There are many different TENS machines available, so it’s important to do your research to find the best one for you, as well as confer with your doctor. TENS machines are particularly useful for managing pain that is caused by injuries or surgeries.

If you’re experiencing ongoing pain and discomfort, using a TENS machine can help reduce your pain and make your daily life easier. While these machines are effective, they are not FDA-approved for the treatment of this type of discomfort. That being said, they are often used to manage pain and reduce inflammation. 

Of course, you should consult with a pain specialist before acquiring this apparatus yourself.

Bottom line

These are potential remedies you can try to reduce or eliminate pain in your vertebrae. It includes exercise and sleep, eating a balanced diet, managing your stress levels, and reviewing your mattress. 

If you are in severe pain or the pain continues, you should seek the assistance of a physician. Even if the pain is not severe or constant, it wouldn’t hurt to see medical advice as well.