Degenerative Disk Disease
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Degenerative Disk Disease

(Degenerative Disc Disease)

En Español (Spanish Version)


Degenerative disk disease occurs when wear and tear on the spinal disks causes pain and other symptoms. Spinal disks serve as shock absorbers, protecting the spine and helping it stay flexible as it bends and twists. Most people experience some degeneration in disks as they age, but not all degeneration will result in symptoms characteristic of degenerative disk disease.

Degenerative Disk


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In degenerative disk disease, the disk is usually dehydrated, and not as resilient as normal. The fibrous tissue, which holds the disk material in place, may suffer small tears leading to further disk degeneration. There is some evidence that genetics may play a part in the development of degenerative disk disease in some people.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your risk of getting a disease or condition.

The following factors may increase your risk of degenerative disk disease:

  • Age: 30s or 40s
  • Family history of degenerative disk disease
  • Athletes
  • Back injury


Symptoms of degenerative disk disease include:

  • Pain in the low back, buttocks, thighs, or neck
  • Pain that worsens when sitting, bending, lifting, or twisting
  • Pain that feels better when walking, changing positions, or lying down
  • Periods of severe pain that gets better after a few days or months
  • Numbness and tingling into the legs
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Foot drop (inability to raise the foot at the ankle)


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Other tests may include:

  • Blood and/or urine tests to rule out other causes of pain
  • MRI scan—a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body
  • X-ray—a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially the bones
  • Discography—dye is injected into the affected spinal area to get clearer x-ray images


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy for degenerative disk disease is focused on teaching you how to manage your back pain. This may involve posture training, exercise, ice packs, heating, electrical stimulation, relaxation, and other forms of physical therapy.


Steroid injections around the nerves exiting the spinal cord may provide some pain relief.

Intradiscal Electrothermal Therapy

Intradiscal electrothermal therapy, or IDET, involves inserting a small catheter with a heated tip into the disk. The heat shrinks the disk and deadens the nerve endings. This is not yet a generally accepted method of treatment.


Surgery may be required in some cases of degenerative disk disease. Surgery may involve removing the degenerated disk and fusing two of the vertebra together.


Take the following steps to help protect your spine:


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

North American Spine Society


Canadian Orthopaedic Association

Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation


Degenerative disc disease. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center website.
Available at: . Accessed July 2, 2007.

Degenerative disk disease. University of Pittsburgh, Department of Neurosurgery website. Available at: . Accessed July 2, 2007.

Paassilta P, Lohiniva J, Göring HH, et al. Identification of a novel common genetic risk factor for lumbar disk disease. JAMA . 2001;285:1843-1849.

Last reviewed May 2008 by Robert E. Leach, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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