What causes degenerative disc disease (DDD)?

DDD develops as a result of the effects of aging on your spine and specifically on your intervertebral discs. It can also be associated with an injury to the back, but even in that scenario, your discs have usually become weak because, with age, discs lose water content, may become thinner; both of which can alter the strength and shape of one or more discs. Before you can feel the pain and other symptoms of DDD your discs and other spine structures are changing. This is simply the natural result of the stress and strain each of us puts our backs through every day.

It can help to think of DDD as a cause and effect process or cascade: one anatomical change occurs, which leads to more degeneration and changes in your spine's structures. These changes combine to cause degenerative disc disease and its symptoms:

  • Degenerative disc disease begins with changes in your intervertebral discs, but eventually, it will affect the other motion segments of the spine, such as the facet joints.
  • Over time, the collagen (protein) structure of the annulus fibrosus (the outer portion of the intervertebral disc) changes.
  • Additionally, water-attracting molecules—and hence water—in the disc decreases.
  • These changes reduce the disc's ability to handle back movement.


Your genes can also increase your risk of developing degenerative disc disease. You may be predisposed to excessive joint and disc wear and tear, so if someone in your family has or had degenerative disc disease, you may also develop back pain or neck pain related to DDD.



back pain from sitting at a desk



  • “Degenerative Disc Disease.” Cedars-Sinai, www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/d/degenerative-disc-disease.html.
  • Medtronic. “Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment & Symptoms.” Adult Scoliosis | Back.com, www.back.com/back-pain/conditions/degenerative-disc-disease/index.htm.
  • Spinasanta, Susan, and Jason M. Highsmith. “Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease | Aging, Wear and Tear on the Spine.” SpineUniverse, SpineUniverse, www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/degenerative-disc/causes-degenerative-disc-disease.
  • “What Is Degenerative Disk Disease?” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/back-pain/degenerative-disk-disease-overview#1-2.


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