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Degenerative Disc Disease

In spite of its name, degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease. It refers to the natural process by which the intervertebral discs of the spine change over time.

As part of the normal aging process, our intervertebral discs — the cushions between the vertebrae (bones) that act as shock absorbers and enable complex motions like bending and twisting — begin to dry and shrink. 

In some cases, these changes eventually lead to ruptured — or herniated — discs, instability in the spine, and/or narrowing of the spinal canal. These issues may in turn cause symptoms, including the following:

  • Neck or back pain
    • Flare-ups , particularly lower back pain
    • Pain made worse by bending, lifting or twisting
    • Pain made worse by sitting (for lumbar degenerative disc disease)
  • Radiating pain
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs

Degeneration can occur at any point in the spine but is most common in the lumbar spine (lower back) and cervical spine (neck). 

How can I get help for degenerative disc disease?

Often back pain and other symptoms related to degenerative disc disease will go away with the following:

  • Rest
  • Restricting the activities that cause your pain
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers (e.g., acetaminophen)

If the above does not help address your pain, you may wish to see your primary care physician. Visit your doctor if you experience the following:

  • Chronic back pain, particularly lower back pain or neck pain
  • Numbness or weakness in your legs
  • Any of the above symptoms of degenerative disc disease

Care for degenerative disc disease at Rush

If your doctor recommends you need further evaluation and testing for degenerative disc disease, Rush has spine specialists who can help.

Nonsurgical treatments

Spine specialists at Rush first try nonsurgical methods to relieve symptoms:

  • Stretching or physical therapy
  • Anti-inflammatory medication (taken by mouth)
  • Spinal injections of medication (typically steroids or anesthetic drugs) directly into the source of pain

Surgical options

Degenerative disc symptoms may not always respond to nonsurgical approaches. In that case, surgery may be needed.

Common surgeries for degenerative disc disease include the following:

  • Decompression – removal of a displaced disc or overgrown bone to free pinched nerves.
  • Fusion – building a bone bridge to provide stability and prevent painful motion. Whenever possible, spine surgeons at Rush perform spinal fusions using minimally invasive approaches that help you heal faster and with less pain.
  • Deformity correction to address abnormal curvatures.
  • Placement of implants, such as spacers, artificial discs and nerve stimulators.

Your spine specialist will discuss your options and help determine the optimal procedure for you.

Why choose Rush for degenerative disc disease care

  • Experience. More patients come to Rush for spine care than any other hospital in the Chicago area.
  • Nationally ranked spine care. The orthopedicsneurology and neurosurgery programs at Rush are consistently ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report
  • Renowned experts. Spine surgeons at Rush offer, and in many cases helped pioneer, advanced treatments for spinal surgery, including minimally invasive approaches that help you heal faster and with less pain.

Departments and programs that treat this condition