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What is Spine Degeneration?

By Amanda Barnhart
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Spine degeneration, or degenerative disc disease, is characterized by one or more of the intervertebral discs beginning to break down from wear and tear. The discs that provide cushioning between the vertebrae that make up the spine absorb pressure and stress from daily movement and activities. After time, the vertebrae rubbing on the disks can cause them to tear and wear thin, causing degeneration.

The most common initial symptom of degenerative disc disease is low back pain that can spread to the buttocks, hips, and thighs. It is considered to be one of the most common causes of low back pain. Spine degeneration and disc degeneration can also lead to bulging or herniated discs. Bulging discs are not usually considered a serious condition unless they cause severe pain or cause the spinal canal to narrow.

The pain from degenerative disc disease is usually caused by inflammation, abnormal micromotion instability, or a combination of the two. Inflammation means that the discs have swollen. Swollen discs can put pressure on the nerves in the disc space, causing back pain. Abnormal micromotion instability occurs when the outer rings of the intervertebral discs wear down or become damaged. Worn discs are not as effective at absorbing pressure from spinal movement, which causes increased pressure on the vertebrae and nerves in the back.

Spine degeneration is usually treated with mild pain relievers and rest. Resting on a firm mattress with a pillow placed under the knees can help relieve low back pain. Patients with degeneration should not rest for more than two or three days at a time, however, as this can lead to a weakening of the back muscles and make the problem worse.

Some spine degeneration patients see physical therapists to help improve the condition. Physical therapists work with back disorder patients to teach them exercises to strengthen the back and core muscles that support the body, improve range of motion and flexibility, and reduce pain and inflammation. Physical therapy helps patients learn the correct way to hold their spines when they sit, stand, and perform daily activities.

Epidural steroid injections are sometimes used to help control pain from spine degeneration in some patients. The injections contain an anti-inflammatory steroid called cortisone that can help relieve swelling and pain from bulging discs, and reduce pain from irritated nerves in the disc spaces. Epidural steroid injections are typically only used when other, less-invasive pain relief methods have failed.

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Discussion Comments
By anon999400 — On Dec 27, 2017

My back has gone out twice in three months just from standing up.

By anon334950 — On May 16, 2013

I just found out that I have extreme degeneration of the spine. I am sixty-six years old and have very little pain. The doctor told me that sitting is the major cause. I have been a hairdresser for 48 years and I didn't sit. I would like someone else's input.

By anon323294 — On Mar 04, 2013

I am 26 and suffer very badly from this work is a struggle and my social life is struggling, as well. I still get on with it, though! I had an MRI scan and the consultant said she has never seen so much wear and tear in someone of my age. I've had this over a year and feel it is never going to end. I have to take strong painkillers four times a day but they never take the pain away.

By yumdelish — On Jun 05, 2011

I've had pretty much every treatment possible for my cervical spine degeneration, but have found the most relief from alternative therapies.

I now have acupuncture treatment very regularly, and find this helps tremendously with pain reflief. Also, with the full permission of my doctor, I have recently started taking a herbal supplement. Devil's claw is known to be a natural anti-inflammatory, and I prefer to use this rather than synthetic medicines.

By BabaB — On Jun 05, 2011

How does lumbar spine degeneration begin? Unfortunately, it's something we all do a lot of - sitting. Sitting squeezes fluid out of the disks and makes them dry and unable to move.

As your disk gets weaker, the insides can push through the disk wall and rupture, sending fluid into the spine. - - Yes, it gets worse.

The disks get really dry and flat, then the vertebrae shrink and you might get shorter. But, never fear, usually with proper exercise and treatment, your spine can be helped. Surgery is not usually necessary.

If your job keeps you sitting for hours on end, take a good break and move around.

By Bertie68 — On Jun 05, 2011

There seems to be some disagreement about what actually causes the discs to deteriorate. Is it from wear and tear - the vertebrae rubbing on the discs, or is it something else? Recent studies show that degeneration of the spine comes about as we age because cells are dying in greater numbers and this results in deterioration of the vertebrae in the disks

At any rate, the treatment is the same - therapist-directed exercises, rest (but not too much), good nutrition and mild pain relief.

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