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What is a Degenerative Disc?

Degenerative discs in the spine can cause tingling, numbness, or pain.
Poor posture and neck strain can weaken a disc over time causing herniation.
An illustration of a healthy spine and one with spinal osteoarthritis, a degenerative disc disease.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2014
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A degenerative disc is a disc in the spine which is causing pain and symptoms such as numbness or tingling. The degeneration of the disc can be a natural part of aging, or it may be caused by an underlying medical condition. Treatment for a degenerative disc varies, depending on the location of the disc, the cause of the degeneration, and the types of symptoms experienced by the patient. Sometimes, the body is able to stabilize the situation on its own, resolving the symptoms along with the problem.

The discs are pads which fit between the vertebrae, acting like shock absorbers. They consist of a tough outer layer and a jellylike inner layer. Both of these layers can be involved in problems with a degenerative disc. In a herniated disc, for example, the soft inner layer pushes out through a tear in the outer layer, causing considerable pain and applying pressure to the surrounding nerves.

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Degenerative discs are often brought up in the context of degenerative disc disease (DDD), a problem which occurs in many older people. Technically, this condition is not a disease, but rather a collection of symptoms associated with damage to the discs in the spine. These symptoms can include back pain which changes if the patient shifts position, tingling and numbness, shooting pains, and general discomfort around the region of the spine where a problem has developed. Inflammation around the disc may also be present as a result of irritation caused by damage to the disc.

In some cases, the best treatment for a degenerative disc is no treatment. The patient may be encouraged to stretch gently and be careful about sleeping and sitting positions, in the hope that the problem will resolve. More aggressive treatments can include the use of medications to manage pain and other symptoms, or physical therapy to strengthen the spine and address the backache, tingling, and numbness.

It may be necessary to use surgery to correct a degenerative disc. In surgery, a variety of techniques can be used, depending on what is causing the problem. A disc may be replaced, for example, or two vertebrae may be fused together to stabilize the spine. Herniated discs can be repaired surgically, as can narrowing of the spinal canal caused by the development of bone spurs and outgrowths. Surgery is usually used as a last resort, only after that patient appears to be a strong candidate for surgery, because surgery on the spine can be dangerous and time-consuming.

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