Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

What is degenerative disc disease?

In short, degenerative disc disease is a condition characterized as back pain caused by worn-down vertebral discs. But what exactly is this? 

In your spine, you have a series of intervertebral discs made of stronger cartilage tissue outside and inner gel-like material. These discs make up around 25% of your spinal column height (the other 75% being the bones in your spine called vertebrae), and their

function is to act as shock absorbers for all the load your back may experience.1 These cushion-like discs protect your back from experiencing challenging and potentially harmful forces, such as those during lifting heavy loads, by distributing the loads through the rest of your spine. This allows your back to deal with forces healthily. These discs’ strong structure and clever shape also allow us to bend to the sides and back and forth.1 As you can imagine, since they have such important functions in our bodies, if something is not quite right with them then we are very likely to experience some discomfort.

Such discomfort may be caused by a condition known as degenerative disc disease (DDD). When intervertebral discs begin to lose water content and shrink, they begin to degenerate. This is a form of arthritis.2 This decreases the disc’s ability to absorb and redistribute loads, the spine’s range of motion is also decreased, and overall, there may be some spine deformity.1 Weaker disc may lead to injury to nerves and vertebrae which may cause pain and discomfort in and around your back, and their regeneration is highly limited due to the disc’s low blood supply.1

Causes and risk factors

There are various causes and risk factors of DDD. These include:

  1. Older age – Discs remain healthy due to their blood supply which nourishes them. Compared to other parts of the body this blood supply is quite limited and is further reduced with age, leading to weaker discs, and hence they degenerate. This makes older age a common cause of DDD, as, by the age of 50, over 95% of people will experience some level of disc degeneration1
  2. Sports  – Some movements and forces may lead to the tearing of the outer layer of the disc. Studies have shown that there is a higher risk of DDD for people who participate in competitive sports activities such as athletics, boxing, and swimming3
  3. Genetics - Studies indicate that there may also be a genetic factor in DDD, meaning that you’re more likely to have it if your parents or grandparents had it4
  4. Vitamin D deficit - Studies also show that people who have less vitamin D are more likely to develop DDD5
  5. Daily activities – Improper lifting of heavy objects or performing repetitive movements with incorrect posture6
  6. Injuries – Musculoskeletal injuries may lead to swelling and soreness7


  • Pain (typically in the lower back or neck) that ranges from mild to severe
  • Increased back pain (typically in the lower back) while sitting, due to increased load on them compared to when standing
  • Increased back pain when bending, twisting, or lifting
  • Back pain relief after changing positions or laying down
  • Severe back, buttocks, neck, or thigh pain that comes and goes, from days to months at a time
  • Numbness and tingling in hands and legs
  • Nerve damage which may translate into weakened leg muscles or drop foot


Medical history

A doctor is likely to review your medical history to determine the diagnosis. 

Physical exam

A professional may carry out a physical examination to investigate and understand your symptoms. This may involve testing for nerve damage or pinched nerves, muscle function, and mobility.8

Imaging test

To obtain a more detailed and informed diagnosis, the doctor is likely to arrange imaging tests to observe your bones and disc structure and to find abnormalities and back deformities. Such tests include x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computer tomography (CT).8



Pain control is a way to reduce the symptoms of DDD. This is typically done using anti-inflammatory medication such as aspirin, or steroid injections.2,9

Physical therapy

Stretching and strengthening appropriate muscles can help the back heal and prevent future problems. Appropriate exercise can also help you maintain a healthy body weight which can help ease the symptoms of DDD. Health professionals such as a physiotherapist can assist in finding appropriate exercises to reduce the issues you may be experiencing because of DDD. These exercises are likely to be based on strengthening the muscles along your back so that they manage well with the loads, and hence put less pressure on your spine.


Surgery may include artificial disc replacement or spinal fusion. Disc replacement, typically lumbar disk replacement (the discs in your lower back), involves replacing a degenerated or worn-out disk with an artificial disc. This ensures that your discs are strong and able to do their function well. After the procedure you are likely to have to stay in the hospital for a few days, however, regeneration after this type of procedure is typically faster than after many other surgeries.10

Spinal fusion is a surgical procedure in which two or more vertebrae are fused into a single bone. This aims to eliminate painful motion and increase the spine’s stability. It is carried out when the doctor knows exactly where the source of your pain is. This is established through observing your medical scan images. This spine surgery can help relieve symptoms of DDD and other back problems.11


It is unlikely for DDD to have further complications, but in a few cases, it does. Complications may result in:

  • Herniated disc (also called bulged, slipped or ruptured disc)
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Pain/weakness or tingling in one or both legs
  • Back osteoarthritis
  • More severe pain 


Back pain is something that almost everyone experiences at some point in their life. Sometimes our life choices, such as how much and how we exercise, our posture, what we eat, or how much water we drink, can determine how much back pain we experience. Other times, such as with degenerative disc disease, we do not have as much control over how many aches and pains we feel. Nonetheless, if you believe that you are experiencing DDD, it is worth informing your doctor about this, as they can help you make appropriate changes to your life to feel healthier and stronger, and in turn, help you live where you’re not limited or irritated by degenerative disc disease.  


  1. Intervertebral Discs » SONSA. Accessed 10 June 2022.
  2. Degenerative Disc Disease. 15 Dec. 2021,
  3. Abdalkader, Mohamad, et al. “MRI-Detected Spinal Disc Degenerative Changes in Athletes Participating in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics Games.” BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, vol. 21, Jan. 2020, p. 45. PubMed Central,
  4. Chan, Danny, et al. “Genetics of Disc Degeneration.” European Spine Journal, vol. 15, no. Suppl 3, Aug. 2006, pp. 317–25. PubMed Central,
  5. Huang, Hanshui, et al. “Vitamin D Retards Intervertebral Disc Degeneration through Inactivation of the NF-ΚB Pathway in Mice.” American Journal of Translational Research, vol. 11, no. 4, Apr. 2019, pp. 2496–506. PubMed Central,
  6. Macedo, Luciana G., and Michele C. Battié. “The Association between Occupational Loading and Spine Degeneration on Imaging – a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, vol. 20, Oct. 2019, p. 489. PubMed Central,
  7. “Articles.” Cedars-Sinai, Accessed 10 June 2022.
  8. Degenerative Disc Disease | Arthritis Foundation. Accessed 10 June 2022.
  9. Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment | Johns Hopkins Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Accessed 10 June 2022.
  10. Lumbar Disk Replacement. 3 May 2021,
  11. Spinal Fusion - OrthoInfo - AAOS. Accessed 10 June 2022.
  12. The Complications of Degenerative Disc Disease: Spinal Diagnostics: Pain Medicine. Accessed 10 June 2022.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Maja Mandzikashvili

Master of Genetics, Public Health educator-Vilnius University.

Hi, I am public health specialist, working on educational projects for kids.
While self-love and healthy habits like exercise and a balanced diet can contribute to physical and psychological well-being, achieving a "perfect" body is subjective and can be unrealistic or harmful to pursue. All bodies are beautiful to me when they are healthy physically and mentally.
This is the approach to my daily practice in life and at work, I am trying to maintain and teach my pupils.
I am glad that through my articles I can share my knowledge and experience with others to promote healthy habits and prevent disease.

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