What is degenerative disc disease (DDD)?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD), aka spinal disc degeneration, refers to changes in the spinal discs as a result of wear and tear, injury, or natural aging that occurs over a long period of time. Changes include loss of fluid in the discs (disc desiccation), tears of the disc annulus (outer layer of the disc), and growth of nerve fibers in the damaged discs. 
DDD is most commonly found in the lower back (lumbar region of the spine) and the neck (cervical region of the spine), but may also occur in any other area of the spine. The human spine is comprised of alternating vertebrae and discs which act as cushions with most of the pressure and stress of everyday moments being absorbed by them. Vertebral discs play a critical role in our anatomy. Without them, the vertebrae would be unable to absorb stresses, become unstable, and would eventually be unable to bend or flex. 
Several factors can cause discs to degenerate, including age. Specific factors include:
  • Drying out of the disc: When we are born, the disc is about 80% water. As we age, the disc dries out and doesn't absorb shock as well.
  • Daily activities and sports: cause tears in the outer core of the disc. By age 60, most people have some degree of disc degeneration. Not everyone at that age experiences back pain, however.
  • Injuries: can cause swelling, soreness, and instability. This can result in lower back pain. 
A diagnosis is based on medical history and a physical examination, as well as the symptoms and the circumstances where the pain started. Some questions he/she might ask you include:
  • When did the pain start?
  • Which part of your spine hurts?
  • Has the pain spread to other parts of your body?
  • Have you ever had a spine injury?
  • Do you have a family history of similar problems?
The doctor will look at your spine for signs of the condition, like pain in your lower back or neck. They may also ask you to walk or bend to see which movements cause pain. 
He/she may also order an X-ray or MRI to check for bone or nerve damage near your spine. 
  • Approximately 40% of people aged 40 have DDD
  • 80% of individuals aged 80+ have DDD
  • About 10-20% of people with lumbar DDD and up to 30% with cervical DDD will be unresponsive to nonsurgical treatments
  • An estimated 5% of patients who require surgery for DDD will be candidates for artificial disc replacement
human spine

  • "Degenerative Disc Disease." Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/orthopaedic_disorders/degenerative_disc_disease_22,DegenerativeDiscDisease.
  • Highsmith, Jason M. "Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosis | Exams and Tests for DDD." SpineUniverse, SpineUniverse, www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/degenerative-disc/exams-tests-degenerative-disc-disease.
  • "What Is Degenerative Disc Disease? (with Video) | ASC." Atlantic Spine Center, www.atlanticspinecenter.com/conditions/degenerative-disc-disease/.
  • Health, O n. "Artificial Discs for Lumbar and Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease -Update: an Evidence-Based Analysis." Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23074480.
  • "Degenerative Disc Disease." Cedars-Sinai, www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/d/degenerative-disc-disease.html.



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