Degenerative Disc Disease Animation

How Aging Can Affect the Spine

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a common cause of neck pain and back pain.  This animation will show you how it develops in your spine.

Who May Be at Risk for Degenerative Disc Disease?
Some people are at greater risk to develop spinal degenerative disc disease.  Risk factors include:

  • genetic predisposition
  • history of heavy work (eg, repetitive lifting that may wear out your spine and lead more quickly to these degenerative changes)
  • poor body mechanics
  • traumatic injury
  • being overweight
  • smoking

Usually a Gradual Problem
The term degenerative disc diseasesounds like an ominous—even threatening—spinal disorder.  However, DDD is not exactly a disease.

It may start as a small change (eg, the intervertebral disc weakens) that progresses and eventually causes the disc to bulge or herniate.  A bulging disc or herniated disc can affect other spinal structures, such as the spinal canal, nerve roots, and facet joints.

It may be a situation where one structural change leads to another—a cascade of changes that can be described as degenerative disc disease and that can lead to pain.

Caused by Changes at the Cellular Level
Our bodies are teaming with trillions of cells—more than 200 types.  Cells are the basic building blocks that replenish bones, cartilage, discs, muscles, nerves, and all other body parts.  During youth, cells normally reproduce and replace old cells.

However, growing older affects cellular activities including metabolism, which slows down.

From the outside, gray hair and wrinkles characterize degenerative changes. In the spine, the structural condition of the intervertebral discs may point to DDD.

For example, the outer layer of an intervertebral disc—the annulus fibrosus—may begin to lose elasticity and flexibility, the very traits that help it cushion your movements and keep your spine healthy.  The annulus may crack or tear, even.

At the center of the disc is the nucleus pulposus, a fibrous, gel-like core containing protein and water.  Degenerative changes may diminish water content and upset the balance of protein to water, altering the strength and pliability of the intervertebral disc.

As the annulus fibrosus weakens, the nucleus pulposus may start to push through it; that can lead to a bulging or herniated disc.  This can all be part of that cascade of changes discussed above that leads to back pain or neck pain.

Degenerative Disc Disease Pain and Other Symptoms
Disc problems can cause pain and may be accompanied by tingling and numbness, or functional weakness (eg, difficulty walking).

A cervical disc disorder often causes neck pain and symptoms that radiate (spread) downward into one or both shoulders or arms.

Symptoms of a lumbar disc condition may include low back pain and symptoms that radiate into one or both buttocks, thighs, or legs (you may have heard this radicular pain called sciatica).  Pain may vary from mild to severe, be intermittent or constant, occur with movement (eg, walking), or worsen when sitting.

Reasons why DDD may cause pain:

  • When a disc bulges, herniates, or collapses, nearby spinal nerves are irritated and may become compressed.
  • If a disc ruptures (herniates), a chemical escapes from the nucleus causing further nerve irritation, inflammation, and pain.
  • DDD may affect the spinal facet joints, which can hinder normal movement.
  • Osteophytes (bone spurs) may develop, compressing spinal nerves and causing narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis).

How Can My Doctor Determine If I Have DDD?
Your doctor reviews your medical and family history, performs a physical and neurological examination, and may order imaging tests.  Imaging tests may involve x-ray, CT or MRI studies.  The type of test your doctor recommends is based on his/her findings from your examination, including characteristics of your pain, and if symptoms radiate into another part of your body.

Your doctor understands that neck or back pain can be frightening, even if you’ve experienced similar pain in the past.  Keep in mind that even if pain is severe, it does not always mean the spine problem is serious.  However, your doctor considers your neck or back pain as a serious symptom, and is available to recommend an appropriate treatment plan to treat yourcervical or lumbar degenerative disc disease.  

Updated on: 06/05/14
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