Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of back pain and leg pain. Spinal discs have a soft jellylike center and a tough outer layer. Spinal discs act like shock absorbers between the vertebrae, or bones, of your spine. As you get older, discs can show signs of wear and tear. They may even break down.
Also referred to as a herniated disc, degenerative disc disease occurs when the softer part of a spinal disc pushes through a crack of the exterior into the spinal canal. This causes irritation to passing nerves, sometimes resulting in pain. The pain can be chronic or can include intermittent episodes of intense pain. It can cause pain in the neck, back, or legs. Your physician will address pain in the neck region, called the cervical spine, differently than pain occurring in the lower back and/or legs.
FAQs About Degenerative Disc Disease
Continue reading below to learn more about degenerative disc disease, often referred to as a herniated disc, or click on one of these links to go directly to the information that interests you.
What causes a herniated disc?
A herniated disc, technically known as degenerative disc disease, can occur in any part of the spine. It most often occurs in the neck (cervical spine) or lower back (lumbar spine). A herniated disc is most often caused by the normal wear and tear you may experience as you age. In fact, age is the greatest risk factor for degenerative disc disease or herniated discs. The chances of developing degenerative disc disease increase significantly after age 40. Some studies suggest that almost everyone experiences some level of degenerative disc disease eventually, though the condition does not always cause pain.
Women are slightly more likely to develop degenerative disc disease.
Other risk factors for a herniated disc include:
- Regularly sitting or standing for long periods
- Engaging in physical labor
What are symptoms of degenerative disc disease?
Many people who have degenerating discs experience no symptoms at all. If you experience pain from a lumbar herniated disc, it will almost always cause pain in the lower back or the legs, or both. If you have a cervical herniated disc that causes symptoms, you’ll most likely feel aching in your neck, arm, or hand. It also can feel like an electric shock.
Common symptoms that may require treatment include:
- Low-grade, ongoing, or chronic pain around the degenerating disc that occasionally erupts into more severe pain
- Pain with bending or twisting the spine, or when lifting heavy objects
- A feeling that the back is unable to provide support, or that it may “give out” or lock up, making movement difficult
- Muscle tension or muscle spasms
- Radiating pain that feels sharp, stabbing, or hot
- Pain that radiates down the leg
- Pain when sitting or standing for long periods
- Pain that lessens with movement such as walking, or with changing positions