Degenerative Disk Disease Degenerative Disk Disease

Degenerative Disk Disease

The disks in your spine are donut-shaped structures filled with a jelly-like substance. They are sandwiched in between each of the vertebrae of your spine and act as shock absorbers, making it easy for you to move, twist, bend, and reach without pain.

When you have degenerative disk disease, these small but important structures have started to deteriorate. Sometimes it’s because they’re losing fluid, so they become thinner and less shock-absorbing. Sometimes the disk cracked, bulged, or ruptured — often called a “herniated” disk. Additionally, you may develop bone “spurs” as the vertebrae touch, which put more pressure on the spinal nerve roots.


Because the disks have shrunk in some way, becoming less effective — or because they’ve bulged and are now abrading and interfering with other spaces — your symptoms might include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness or tingling in the area linked to the section of the spine affected by the degenerating disk
  • Weakness related to that area
  • Radicular symptoms — pain that radiates from the affected area, along the spinal nerve root, to your arms, hands, legs, or feet

Degenerative disk disease can occur to any of your disks. It is generally seen in the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back). Because the lower back supports almost all of your weight, it is often the area in which disk degeneration is first felt.



One of the primary causes of degenerative disk disease is simply aging.

Smokers are at higher risk for developing this condition, possibly because the chemicals inhaled and the smoke itself result in impaired blood flow to the disk. Those who do heavy lifting, and those who are overweight or obese, are also more likely to develop degenerative disk disease, because the additional weight puts extra pressure on your back muscles and therefore your spine and disks. An injury to the area may also accelerate degenerative disk disease.

If you have osteoarthritis, or spinal stenosis, you are at risk for this condition as well.


Living Better

If you’ve been diagnosed with degenerative disk disease, you’ll want to check with your St. Luke’s physician about how to proceed with your daily activities. There may be some motions you need to limit, or exercises you can incorporate to help relieve some of your symptoms. Working with a physical therapist can provide you with an opportunity to learn the best way for you to perform certain movements, as well as find out how to strengthen your abdominal muscles to take more stress off your back.


Exams and Tests

Your St. Luke’s physician will take a complete medical history and give you a thorough physical exam. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms. Some symptoms — such as chills, or fever — might rule out degenerative disk disease and indicate infection; or, you may have both. If you have pain, you may be asked to perform certain motions.

The first test performed is often radiography, which is a type of X-ray; this will show how your bones are aligned. Some tests, such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, may be performed to rule out other possible causes for your pain or numbness, such as metastatic cancer, pancreatic cancer, or an aortic aneurysm.

If these tests don’t provide enough data, your team may decide to use discography.



At St. Luke’s, your team of neurologists, neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons and physiatrists will work with you to determine the course of treatment that would be best for you.

Medicines, including pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, might be the first line of defense. Anti-convulsants have sometimes been proven to be helpful if you have pain that radiates from your spine to an extremity.

If surgery is indicated, neurosurgeons at St. Luke’s can rely on a number of leading edge techniques, including minimally invasive treatments. Surgery generally has one of two purposes: to either remove the disk and replace it, stopping the pain from being generated, or to eliminate pain by stopping motion in the affected area.

Another treatment available at St. Luke’s is a minimally invasive surgery performed to relieve chronic and intractable back pain. A neurostimulation device — an electrode — is implanted on the spine; it is used to halt transmission of pain signals to the brain.

The experts on your team at St. Luke’s will help you make the best decision for your health.