What Is Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease?

The vertebral column (backbone) is made up of 33 vertebrae. These vertebrae are grouped into divisions called the cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back), and lumbar (lower back). Each pair of vertebrae are connected by an intervertebral disc–a fibrous disc with a softer cartilage core. In a healthy spine, these intervertebral discs cushion the vertebrae and permit normal flexibility of the spine.

As people age, however, the discs undergo changes. They may dry out, thin, or crack. The soft cartilage core may bulge or herniate out through the fibrous outer portion of the disc. Degenerative disc disease is an umbrella term that describes these age-related processes.

Most people’s spinal discs degenerate over time. By the age of 35, approximately 30% of people will show evidence of disc degeneration at one or more levels. By the age of 60, more than 90% of people will show evidence of some disc degeneration. Degeneration itself is normal, and does not necessarily cause pain. Painless degeneration is just called degeneration. The term “degenerative disc disease” describes disc degeneration that causes pain and other symptoms.

Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease Overview

Although the spine is in a near-constant state of degeneration after our 20s, most people don’t start to experience symptoms of DDD until they reach their 60s or 70s, Dr. Anand says. “Seventy to 80% of people have some sign of degeneration on an MRI, but not everyone has symptoms. Others have severe pain with pretty normal-appearing backs. It’s the way the spine bears the weight,” he explains.

He adds that in most cases, the degeneration of the spine is a very gradual progression, so you may not notice any symptoms at all in the early stages. 

When you do start to have symptoms, the first one is probably going to be back pain. You may also notice it spreading, especially to your buttocks or upper thighs (hello, sciatica). That’s common in DDD because, while the problem may disc damage, it usually affects other nearby structures – including nerves.

What if your experience with back pain is entirely different? Disc degeneration may still be the culprit. Symptoms vary widely and may include:

  • Feeling like your back has “seized” or “locked up” 
  • Neck pain
  • Loss of motion in your spine
  • Stiffness in your back
  • Pain that radiates through your buttocks and legs or arms and hands
  • Pain that worsens with extended periods of sitting
  • Leg or foot weakness in severe cases
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Treatment Options

Conservative Treatment

  • Physical Therapy
  • Chiropractor
  • Anti-Inflammatory Medications
  • Acupuncture

Surgical Treatment

Lumbar Spinal Fusion