What are the Possible Complications of Degenerative Disc Disease?

What are the Possible Complications of Degenerative Disc Disease?
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Degenerative disc disease is a condition in which the spinal discs experience gradual deterioration. The spinal discs are shock absorbers often described as resembling a jelly doughnut. They have a soft inner core and a tough outer core. All levels of the spine can become degenerated, including the cervical spine (neck area), thoracic spine (mid-back), and lumbar spine (lower back). This condition most often affects the lower back. The complications of degenerative disc disease will vary from patient to patient and they can be serious for some.


Most patients will experience some degree of pain and for some patients this pain can be quite severe. When the patient is standing or sitting their pain is often worse. Certain types of activity can also worsen the pain, such as lifting, bending, and twisting. The pain is often chronic with sudden episodes of increased pain. These sudden episodes can last just a few days up to several months.


A complete physical examination is most often the first step in diagnosing this condition. The doctor will make sure to closely examine the lower extremities and the back. The doctor will also examine the patient’s range of motion (specifically their back), their back’s flexibility, and for certain signs that may convey that the degenerative changes are affecting the nerve roots.

They will do this by testing the patient’s reflexes and muscles to ensure they are still functioning properly. In most cases, the patient will also undergo a full set of routine x-rays to look for any spinal canal narrowing and/or bone spurs.

Other imaging studies are also often conducted to look for degenerative spinal changes, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography. An MRI can be beneficial in looking for herniated discs. A CT scan can be beneficial in examining the spine’s bony anatomy to see how much space is there for the roots, as well as within the spinal canal and neuroforamen.


Certain complications of degenerative disc disease require immediate medical attention. These include pain that continues to worsen (especially over a short period of time), loss of bladder or bowel control, disabling pain, and numbness, pain, tingling, or weakness in one or both legs. However, it is rare that this condition leads to conditions that are more serious.


Treating this condition will depend on whether the patient is having any muscle weakness or nerve root compression. For those who do not have these issues, their treatment regimen will most often consist of physical therapy and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. To help rest the back, the patient may be given a soft lumbar corset to weak.

Other treatments options include medications for pain, such as narcotic pain medications if non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs fail to provide relief, muscle relaxing medications (specifically if muscle stiffness is involved), and surgery if all other treatment options fail to relieve symptoms.


Neurology Channel. (2008). Degenerative Disc Disease: Risk Factors and Causes, Signs and Symptoms. Retrieved on April 30, 2010 from Neurology Channel: https://www.neurologychannel.com/degenerative-disc-disease/causes-symptoms.shtml

Walker, K.A. (2009). Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease. Retrieved on April 30, 2010 from Spine Universe: https://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/degenerative-disc/symptoms-degenerative-disc-disease

Back.com. (2002). Degenerative Disc Disease. Retrieved on April 30, 2010 from Back.com: https://www.back.com/causes-mechanical-degenerative.html

Image Credits

Herniated spinal disc: Tonbi_ko – Wikimedia Commons