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Back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old. More than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 experience frequent back pain.*
*Source: National Centers for Health Statistics

Degenerative Spinal Disease Overview

Degenerative spinal disease (also known as degenerative disc disease) is a common cause of low back and neck pain. It is actually more a condition than a disease. It refers to degenerative changes in the low back (lumbar spine) or in the neck (cervical spine) that can affect its structure and/or function.

A number of other spinal disc changes are also associated with low back pain. These include bulging disc, sciatica, osteoporosis and fibromyalgia, among others. The condition is mostly frequently associated with aging but it can (rarely) occur in young people.

The back is made of bones, muscles and other tissues that form the posterior of the body’s trunk—from neck to pelvis. The spinal column supports the weight of the upper body. It also houses and protects the spinal cord, which carries signals controlling body movement and sensation.

The spinal column is made of 26 individual bones (known as vertebrae) that are stacked on top of one another. The vertebrae are maintained by round, spongy pads of cartilage (discs) that permit the back to be flexible and cushion the bones as the body moves.

Aging, wear and tear and other conditions cause the discs to lose their fluid and become thinner, more rigid and less flexible. The degenerative changes cause reduced movement and pain. The degenerative process can also be started by a strain or injury. Disc degeneration can contribute to other back problems including spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis of the spine and Spondylolisthesis.

WellStar neurologists and neurosurgeons are expert in diagnosis and treatment of degenerative spinal disease. Whether you are experiencing slight discomfort or extreme pain, our doctors will recommend strategies and procedures to improve your comfort and quality of life.


Degenerative spinal disease symptoms may develop slowly over time. Well before any sign of the condition appears on an X-ray, the spine may already be undergoing important changes.

The primary symptom is neck or back pain. The location of pain depends on the area of the spine that has degenerative changes. In some cases pain in one area of the spine will radiate or migrate to another area of the body. That’s because the nerves that branch off the spine travel throughout the body.

People with spinal degeneration have pain that can range between slightly annoying to disabling. Other symptoms include:

  • Severe episodes of back or neck pain lasting from a few days to a few months before returning to less pain.
  • More pain when sitting for a long period, bending, twisting or lifting.
  • Less pain when walking or running.
  • Less pain when body position is frequently changed.
  • Less pain lying down.

If any of the following symptoms occur, seek help immediately as these may indicate a situation that requires prompt medical attention. For example, a protruding disc wall or other material may be pressing on the spinal cord or irritating a nerve root. Watch for:

  • Worsening or disabling pain.
  • Weakness, pain, numbness or tingling in the leg/s.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.


Risk Factors

Risk factors for degenerative spinal disease include:

  • Age. Degenerative disease typically occurs between age 30 and 50, and the risk increases with age. Aging contributes to wear and tear on the discs that support the vertebrae of the spine. In some cases children who carry overly heavy backpacks have been affected.
  • Sedentary lifestyle.
  • Traumatic injury.
  • High-impact sports.
  • Some occupations that require heavy lifting.
  • Genetics seems to play a role in the pace at which the condition develops.

Related Information

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