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Degenerative Disc Disease - Topic Overview

What are the symptoms?

Degenerative disc disease may result in back or neck pain, but this varies from person to person. Many people have no pain, while others with the same amount of disc damage have severe pain that limits their activities. Where the pain occurs depends on the location of the affected disc. An affected disc in the neck area may result in neck or arm pain, while an affected disc in the lower back may result in pain in the back, buttock, or leg. The pain often gets worse with movements such as bending over, reaching up, or twisting.

The pain may start after a major injury (such as from a car accident), a minor injury (such as a fall from a low height), or a normal motion (such as bending over to pick something up). It may also start gradually for no known reason and get worse over time.

In some cases, you may have numbness or tingling in your leg or arm.

How is degenerative disc disease diagnosed?

Degenerative disc disease is diagnosed with a medical history and physical exam. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, injuries or illnesses, any previous treatment, and habits and activities that may be causing pain in the neck, arms, back, buttock, or leg. During the physical exam, he or she will:

  • Check the affected area's range of motion and for pain caused by movement.
  • Look for areas of tenderness and any nerve-related changes, such as numbness, tingling, or weakness in the affected area, or changes in reflexes.
  • Check for other conditions, such as fractures, tumors, and infection.

If your exam reveals no signs of a serious condition, imaging tests, such as an X-ray, are unlikely to help the diagnosis. Imaging tests may be considered when your symptoms develop after an injury, nerve damage is suspected, or your medical history suggests conditions that could affect your spine, such as bone disease, tumors, or infection.

How is it treated?

To relieve pain, put ice or heat (whichever feels better) on the affected area and use acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Your doctor can prescribe stronger medicines if needed.

If you develop health problems such as osteoarthritis, a herniated disc, or spinal stenosis, you may need other treatments. These include physical therapy and exercises for strengthening and stretching the back. In some cases, surgery may be recommended. Surgery usually involves removing the damaged disc. In some cases, the bone is then permanently joined (fused) to protect the spinal cord. In rare cases, an artificial disc may be used to replace the disc that is removed.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 12, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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