While it is referred to as a disease, in reality degenerative disc disease is simply the description of the changes your spinal discs go through in the aging process. Also sometimes referred to as arthritis of the back, DDD happens when the soft, compressible spinal discs start to lose fluid, which makes them less flexible and more compressed.

The discs can also develop tiny tears in the outer layer (annulus), which may allow the jellylike inner layer (nucleus) to bulge, causing pressure on the spinal cord and/or nerves. Since the discs act as shock-absorbing cushions between the vertebrae, these changes can cause pain.

Symptoms

While pain can often be absent as the discs degenerate over time, when pain is experienced it is usually in the lower back or neck. The aches in the lower back can radiate to the top of the thighs.

People suffering from disc degeneration will often wake up with a stiff lower back. This and neck pain can be exacerbated by prolonged sitting or standing. There may be periods of more severe pain that can last anywhere from a few days to several months. After these periods, the pain, while chronic, will return to a milder and more manageable level.

Causes

The main reason for degenerative disc disease is the unavoidable hands of time. However, there are examples of environmental causes as well. If you are involved in repetitive heavy lifting or have been injured, the affected disc can get thinner and lose its ability to cushion the vertebrae.

The physical changes that result from degenerative disc disease affect the movement of the spinal vertebrae. As a result, bone spurs or bulging or leakage in the disc may occur. When any of these happen and contact the spinal nerves, it will most likely result in pain.

Besides bad luck with a genetic predisposition to degenerative disc disease, lifestyle choices can also be a cause, including smoking and obesity.

Most people will experience some level of degenerative disc disease in their lives. For most people, symptoms will subside naturally. In some cases, medications, physical therapy, or other non-operative treatments will be necessary. For people who cannot find relief naturally or through medication and/or physical therapy, spinal surgery may be performed.

Author's Bio: 

Jason Knapfel is Content Manager at Webfor, an Internet marketing company. One of their clients is Dr. Todd Kuether, a Portland spinal surgeon.