Degenerative disc disease is a slow progressive breakdown in the structures that make up the disc. It can occur in all segments of the spine but most often in the mobile segments of the neck and back. The soft center of the disc (nucleus) loses its fluid content and is less able to absorb motion forces. The thin outer wall (annulus) has layers that tend to fray and break down over time. Degenerative disc disease typically affects people in their 40’s-50’s, although it can start as early as adolescence in rare cases.
In some people this degenerative process is not associated with pain, while in others degenerative disc disease can cause neck and back pain, stiffness, and soreness. Degenerative discs can rupture, leading to arm or leg pain if the disc pinches nerves. The process of degeneration causes discs to gradually lose height, form spurs, and cause narrowing around the nerves, which can also lead to arm and leg pain.
X-rays show bones and can demonstrate bone spurs and narrowing of the disc spaces in cases of disc degeneration.
With persistent pain that is unbearable or has lasted longer than a month, an MRI is often necessary. MRI scans, unlike x-rays, have the ability to illustrate soft tissue such as discs. In addition to demonstrating if there is a degenerative disc, an MRI will also show whether or not there is a pinched nerve.
Genetic predisposition, repetitive trauma, smoking, obesity, and the aging process are causative factors. The disc becomes less flexible, more prone to injury, and can be a source of pain and dysfunction.