Degenerative disc disease

Medical Specialties: Orthopedics, Physical medicine & rehab, Radiology

Clinical Definition

Degenerative disc disease is the deterioration of one or more of the intervertebral discs in a person's spine. The condition reduces the disc's ability to handle mechanical stress, such as twisting and bending, leading to back pain.  Aging, drying out and wear of a disc, which reduces the disc's ability to absorb shock, as well as well as tearing of a disc, can also result in pain for some people. 

In Our Own Words

Degenerative disc disease is a condition in which a person experiences back pain due to damage in one or more discs, or the natural shock absorbers in a spine. It is one of many possible causes of back pain.


Discs act as shock absorbers between the bones of the spine and help keep the back flexible while also resisting force. Sports and even certain daily activities also can cause tears to the outer layer of the disc, making some degree of disc degeneration common in people by the age of 60. Normal aging also causes the condition, as discs become less supple over time. In late stages of degeneration, bony spurs can form, causing spinal stenosis, a condition in which the spinal canal narrows and presses against the nerve roots, leading to leg pain and dysfunction. Treatment can range from physical therapy to surgery. 

Relevant Conditions
  • Back pain
  • Sciatica
  • Spinal stenosis
Side Effects
  • Back pain while sitting
  • Increased pain when bending, lifting or twisting
  • Periods of pain that come and go
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands or feet
Share this article
  • Cleveland Clinic. “Degenerative Back Conditions.” Accessed July 2013.
  • Cedars-Sinai. “Degenerative Disc Disease.” Accessed July 2013.
  • Harvard Health Publications. “Medical Dictionary of Health Terms.” Accessed July 2013.
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