Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease

How age-related changes in your spine's intervertebral discs may lead to neck and back pain.

Written by Susan Spinasanta
Reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) develops as a result of the effects of aging on your spine and specifically on your intervertebral discs. It can also be associated with an injury to the back, but even in that scenario, your discs have usually become weak because, with age, discs lose water content, may become thinner; both of which can alter the strength and shape of one or more discs. Before you can feel the result of DDD—pain and other symptoms—your discs and other spine structures are changing. This is simply the natural result of the stress and strain each of us puts our backs through every day.

Cause and Effect
The causes and effects of degenerative disc disease are relatively straightforward: You age, your discs change, your bones can be affected, and you can develop pain. It even helps to think of DDD as a cause and effect process or cascade: One anatomical change occurs, which leads to more degeneration and changes in your spine's structures. These changes combine to cause degenerative disc disease and its symptoms.

Discs May Become Thin
The disc will become less spongy and much thinner. A thinner disc means that the space between the vertebra above and below the disc gets smaller, which causes a new problem, this time with the facet joints. They help stabilize the spine, and if the disc loses height, the way the facet joints move changes. Then the cartilage that protects the facets begins to wear away, and they start to move too much: They "override" and become overly mobile.

How the Spine Tries to Stop Hypermobility
Hypermobility causes another change in your spine. It tries to stop the movement with the growth of small bony elements called bone spurs (osteophytes). Unfortunately, the bone spurs sometimes pinch nerve structures and cause pain. The bone spurs can narrow the space for the spinal cord and nervesthat disorder is called spinal stenosis. Degenerative disc disease won't cause spinal stenosis in everyone, but it's something you should be aware of if you have degenerative disc disease.

Genetics May Play a Part
Your genes can also increase your risk of developing degenerative disc disease. You may be predisposed to excessive joint and disc wear and tear, so if someone in your family has or had degenerative disc disease, you may also develop back pain or neck pain related to DDD.

You Can Control Your Lifestyle
Finally, the way you're living could lead to degenerative disc disease. Smoking, for example, adversely affects your discs and can cause them to degenerate faster. Smoking actually decreases the amount of water in your discs, and water is part of what helps your discs absorb movement. With less water content, your intervertebral discs can wear out sooner.

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