What is degenerative disk disease?

Disk degeneration is a normal part of aging. It’s also known as degenerative disk disease (DDD).

The degeneration develops over time. It affects the rubber-like disks between vertebrae — the small bones that make up the spinal column (backbone).

The disks act like cushions between those bones. When the cushions wear away, the bones can start to rub together. This contact can cause pain and other problems, such as:

How common is intervertebral disk degeneration?

Almost everyone has some disk degeneration after age 40, even if they don’t develop symptoms. It can lead to back pain in about 5% of adults.

Are certain people more likely to get DDD?

Certain people have a higher chance of developing disk degeneration:

  • People who are very overweight.
  • People who experience trauma to the spine.
  • Professional drivers (for example, taxi and truck drivers).
  • Gymnasts.
  • Smokers.

What causes DDD?

A healthy back contains a number of rubbery cushions called disks. Each disk sits between a set of vertebrae, the bones that stack up to make the spinal column. Together, the discs allow a person to bend, twist and move freely.

As we age, our disks begin to wear away, for several reasons:

  • Activities or sports can cause small tears in the discs over the years.
  • Discs dry out or get weak over time.
  • Injury can cause discs to break down faster.

Because discs are primarily composed of collagen and have a relatively poor blood supply, they do not heal like other parts of the body.

What are the symptoms of DDD?

When disks wear down too much, the vertebrae rub together. The grinding of the bones can cause:

  • Pain.
  • Stiffness.
  • Tingling or numbness.
  • Trouble with movement.
  • Weakness in the legs or foot drop (can’t raise the front part of one or both feet).

What does degenerative disk pain feel like?

Degenerative disk pain:

  • Can happen in the neck or lower back.
  • May extend into the arms and hands or into the butt and legs.
  • Can be mild, moderate or severe.
  • May start and stop.
  • Can get worse after certain activities such as bending, twisting or lifting.
  • Can get worse over time.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/07/2020.

References

  • Arthritis Foundation. Degenerative Disc Disease. Accessed 11/29/2020.
  • Dowdell J, Erwin M, Choma T, et al. Intervertebral disc degeneration and repair. Neurosurg. 2017; 80(3 Suppl): S46–S54. Accessed 11/29/2020.
  • National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Intervertebral Disc Disease. Accessed 11/29/2020.

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