While not actually a disease, the term degenerative disc disease is often used to describe the normal changes in an individual’s spine as they age. Over time, individuals may experience the loss of fluid in their discs, reducing the ability of those discs to serve as shock absorbers and cushion the bones of the spine (vertebrae). Other age-related changes may include tears in the wall of a disc, which could result in an inflamed, ruptured or fragmented disc.
The disorder is most common in people who smoke cigarettes, are obese and/or perform heavy physical work. Sudden injury, such as a vehicle accident or fall, may also spur the degeneration process in the spine.
Symptoms include pain in the back or neck, depending on the location of disc damage. A damaged disc in the neck area, for example, may result in neck and arm pain, while a damaged disc in the lower back may result in pain in the back, buttocks and legs. Numbness or tingling in the legs or arms may also be present.
Degenerative disc disease is diagnosed through a physical exam and evaluation of medical history. Imaging tests such as X-rays are often considered if symptoms develop after an injury, nerve damage is suspected, or if medical history indicates you are at risk of conditions affecting the spine. Treatments typically include pain medications and/or anti-inflammatory medications, hot or cold packs, physical therapy, and in severe cases, surgery to remove the damaged disc.