What is Degenerative Disc Disease? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

degenerative disc disease back pain

The term Degenerative Disc Disease is a bit misleading given the condition it describes is something relatively normal that happens to the spine.

Often misunderstood by many people as a disease, Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) or also known as Degenerative Disc Disorder is not any alarming or chronic ailment but just a condition that causes low back pain.

Some might consider it as an alarming problem when combined with other diagnosed conditions.

Many wonders it to get worse and leave them crippled or physically inactive. However, it is not true.

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative Disc Disease is a degenerative condition caused by some particular changes in the intervertebral disc of the spine.

It causes pain in the back and the lower back region. Either caused due to injury, a genetic factor or other reasons, the intervertebral discs tend to come close due to inflammation and cause pain.

The pain may be random, and it will depend and vary according to the situation.

It may get worse, causing excruciating pain or might get relieved depending on the treatment and care. It may also lead to herniated disc, arthritis or spinal stenosis. Often recognized as the lower back pain, people usually suffer from this condition due to old age.


The few common causes of this disorder are:

  • Aging
  • Loss of fluid in the vertebral disc
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Injury
  • Wear and tear of the outer layer of the disc
  • Smoking
  • Genetic Factors
  • Poor Posture


Several usual signs might indicate the onset of DDD followed, but some cases find other different symptoms.

A typical sign is a pain in the back, especially the lumbar region and hip area, as well as the thigh area in some instances.

Degenerative disc disease is one of the most frequent causes of low back pain and neck pain, and also one of the most misunderstood.

Several usual symptoms typically occur in people with low back pain or neck pain caused by degenerative disc disease, including:

  • Pain that is usually more related to the activity and that intensifies at times, but then returns to a low level of pain, or the pain disappears completely.
  • Severe episodes of back or neck pain that usually last a few days to a few months before the patient returns to baseline chronic pain.

The amount of chronic pain – called the patient’s baseline level of pain is quite variable between individuals and can range from almost no pain / only minor discomfort, severe and disabling pain.

The completely disabling chronic pain caused by degenerative disc disease occurs in some cases but is relatively unusual.

Certain types of activity typically make pain worse, especially leaning, lifting objects, and twisting the torso.

Specific postures will usually make the pain worse. For example, pain due to lumbar disc degeneration usually worsens when sitting, since in the sitting position the lumbosacral discs have a load three times higher than the one standing.

Walking, and even running, may feel better than sitting or standing for a long time. Patients often feel better if they can change position frequently.

Patients with lumbar DDD usually feel better lying in a reclining position (such as with their legs resting on a recliner), or lying with a pillow under their knees, and that these positions relieve stress on the lumbar space.

Other symptoms are:

  • Irregular but chronic tingling, numbness, sensation or pain may be sensed in the knees, legs, joints, and fingers
  • Pain while moving, stretching and other movements

Pain caused by degenerative disc disease.

Most patients with degenerative disc disease will have some chronic pain in the lower back or neck, with intermittent episodes of more severe illness.

The exact cause of these episodes of more severe pain is unknown, but some have been theorizing that it is due to abnormal micromovement in the degenerated disc that produces an inflammatory reaction.

In an attempt to stabilize the spine and decrease micromovement, the body reacts to disc pain with muscle spasms. Reactive spasms are what makes the patient feel like his back “went out.”

In general, the patient’s pain should not be continuous and severe. If so, medical experts should consider other diagnoses.


For people with painful exacerbations, the primary treatment goals will usually include:

Pain control

The focus of this part of the treatment is to reduce pain sufficiently so that the patient can perform a specific program of exercise and rehabilitation.

The pain of a degenerate or collapsed disc is usually caused by both instability and inflammation, and therefore both causes must be treated.

For most people, the treatment is non-surgical and may include a focus or combination of many medical, alternative and self-care approaches.

Often, a patient needs to adopt a trial-and-error approach to determine which types of treatment work best.

Surgical solutions, an arthrodesis or an artificial disc, are impactful procedures and patients are usually advised to make a serious effort with non-surgical treatments for at least six months before considering surgery.

Exercise and rehabilitation

Working out can help you heal your back and avoid or reduce the chances of your pain coming back.

For people with degenerative disc disease, exercises are usually best performed with the guidance of a physiotherapist or other trained healthcare professional.

An additional benefit of exercise is that it can also help reduce pain naturally as it releases endorphins that function as the body’s natural pain reliever.

The exercise is best performed in a controlled manner and with the help of a trained health care professional, such as a physiatrist, physiotherapist, or chiropractor.

Modifications in the lifestyle

The focus of this part of the treatment is education and resources to help the patient develop a healthier lifestyle.

Frequently, people can make lifestyle changes that are meant to avoid stress on the spine and support it through proper posture and ergonomics.

Also, many people can benefit from the following changes:

Avoid nicotine

Avoid excess alcohol

Incorporate movement into the daily routine and avoid staying in a position for a long time. For example, stand, stretch and walk every 20 to 30 minutes instead of sitting for an extended period.

Drink a lot of water

For DDD low back pain, most patients may benefit from a gentle stretching routine of the hamstring muscles. There are many options for each of the three areas above.