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What exactly is disc degeneration?

Posted Mar 03 2010 4:33am

Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back pain, and also one of the most misunderstood. Many patients diagnosed with low back pain caused by degenerative disc disease are left wondering exactly what this diagnosis means for them. Common questions that are often on patients’ minds include: If I have low back pain from degenerative disc disease in my thirties, how much worse will it become with age? Will the degenerative disc disease become a crippling condition? Will I end up in a wheelchair? Should I restrict my activities? Will the degenerative disc disease spread to other parts of the spine? Will the low back pain from degenerative disc disease cause any permanent damage?
A large part of many patients’ confusion is that the term “degenerative disc disease” sounds like a progressive, very threatening condition. However, this condition is not strictly degenerative and is not really a disease.

Part of the confusion probably comes from the term “degenerative”, which implies to most people that the symptoms will get worse with age. The term applies to the disc degenerating, but does not apply to the symptoms. While it is true that the disc degeneration is likely to progress over time, the low back pain from degenerative disc disease usually does not get worse and in fact usually gets better over time. But understand that while the pain may go away, stiffness and lack of motion and flexibility will be left and can  cause its own set of problems.

Another source of confusion is probably created by the term “disease”, which is actually a misnomer. Degenerative disc disease is not really a disease at all, but rather a degenerative condition that at times can produce pain from a damaged disc.

Disc degeneration is a natural part of aging and over time all people will exhibit changes in their discs consistent with a greater or lesser degree of degeneration. However, not all people will develop symptoms. In fact, finally, many patients are confused about degenerative disc disease because many medical professionals don’t agree on what the phrase describes.

In practical terms, this means that few practitioners agree on what does and does not constitute a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease. Even medical textbooks don’t usually attempt to give an accurate description. Therefore, while many practitioners believe that degenerative disc disease is a common cause of low back pain in young adults, very few agree on the implications.

Generally, the pain associated with degenerative disc disease is thought to stem from two different factors: Inflammation and abnormal motion causing instability.  The proteins in the disc space can cause a lot of inflammation, and inflammation in the disc space can lead to low back pain radiating to the hips. The associated pain can also travel down the back of the legs.  Both the inflammation and instability can cause muscular spasm in the low back. The muscle spasm is the body’s attempt to stabilize the low back. It is a reflex, and although the body’s response of muscle spasm is not necessary for the safety of the nerve roots, it can be quite painful.

Of course most importantly how do you treat this and prevent it from worsening. Decreaseing inflammation and improving motion are critical to slowing down the progression. Chiropractic care and nutritional intervention can be of great service. Contact your Chiropractor or call our office at 860-620-9523 or visit our website at  to discuss ways you can minimize the effects of degenerative disc disease.

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