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What is Disc Degeneration?

Disc degeneration occurs when the discs between vertebrae breakdown.
An illustration of a healthy spine and one with spinal osteoarthritis, a degenerative disc disease.
Cigarette smokers are more prone to disc degeneration.
A car accident could cause a person's disc to become herniated and begin degeneration.
Article Details
  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 July 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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The discs of the spine are soft discs that are located between the vertebrae, which are interlocking bones of the spine. These discs are compressible, and they work much like shock absorbers, providing cushioning against impact on the spinal column as a person moves. They also make it possible for the spine to flex and bend, so that a person can move in a variety of different directions. Disc degeneration is the breaking down of the spinal discs; they may become dry, less elastic, and worn. This happens as a normal part of aging, but some people also develop disc degenerative disease, which is worse than typical disc degeneration.

When discs degenerate, they may lose fluid. When fluid leaks out of a disc, it becomes less flexible. It is also less capable of absorbing shock. This fluid loss even causes the discs to thin and narrow, which puts the vertebrae closer to each other.

Sometimes small cracks form in the spinal discs, and tears may develop as well. This happens in the disc’s outer layer. A substance with a similar consistency to jelly is found inside the disc. When cracks and tears form in a disc, the jelly-like material make actually start to seep out of the disc’s center, causing the disc to bulge. In some cases, the disc may rupture as well.

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Besides aging, there are other things that can lead to disc degeneration. For example, a serious injury, such as a fall or car accident, may cause a disc to become herniated and begin degenerating. Those who are obese and people who lift heavy objects for a living may be more prone to developing degenerative disc disease. Cigarette smokers are more prone to this condition as well.

For some people, disc degeneration doesn’t cause pain. However, as the discs deteriorate, other conditions may result, which can lead to discomfort. For some, disc degeneration translates into back aches that may be occasional or chronic. Others experience severe pain.

Ordinary disc degeneration becomes degenerative disc disease when the spinal discs degenerate unevenly. This results in the misalignment of the spine, which can cause pain in the surrounding nerves and muscle inflammation. It can even lead to stiffness in the area. Pain caused by degenerative disk disease may affect other parts of the body in addition to the back. It may also contribute to pain the neck, arms, legs, and rear end.

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Discuss this Article

Mammmood
Post 3

@NathanG - I also have neck pain but I don’t walk all day, I sit – constantly staring at my computer as I churn out lines and lines of code. I too developed neck pain.

I don’t know if I’ve developed any disc degeneration; I’m almost afraid to go to the doctor to find out. However, I found that using an electric massage device and ice packs have helped tremendously.

I also work on correct posture and taking frequent breaks. It’s such a crying shame in my opinion that so many occupations nowadays can adversely impact your back or neck. I think the chiropractor will be my next stop if my condition ever gets worse.

NathanG
Post 2

My wife works in the pharmacy all day long, a job which requires her to stand on her feet constantly. After several years she complained of neck pain. She is short in stature and it was a challenge for her to constantly look up at the computer monitor in the pharmacy while she was walking around.

Finally she went to the doctor and he said that she had a case of bulging disc. This is a mild form of back disc degeneration and it can get worse if not treated.

She wasn’t at the stage where she needed surgery, but at least some mild therapy was needed. So she went to a physical therapist, who gave her some exercises, and also encouraged her to buy an inversion board, which she did.

This is a board which you lay on, and it flips you upside down, helping to decompress your spine.

SarahSon
Post 1

My husband has had degenerative disc disease for several years. He has tried physical therapy exercises but still has a lot of back pain.

He has to be very careful the way he moves, bends down, gets out of bed and he doesn't lift anything very heavy.

He may have to have disc surgery some day, but he is putting it off as long as he can. A doctor friend of ours told us that the odds of back surgery being successful are not all that great.

She said that 1/3 of the people are better, 1/3 get worse and 1/3 stay about the same. If those odds are true, it makes you stop and think if you really want to pursue surgery or not.

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