All About Degenerative Disc Disease

All About Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease isn’t actually a disease. And, everyone experiences some degree of disc degeneration. Over time, the discs between your vertebrae become more fragile, and for some people that degeneration causes pain. 

At Downtown Pain Management, Dr. Ron Ben-Meier and Dr. Sagar Parikh work with patients to find the best ways to manage pain. Back pain is a common complaint, with as many as 80% of American adults experiencing it at some time or other. Degenerative disc disease causes pain, though it may be mild or intense, intermittent, or in different locations depending on which discs are affected.

The anatomy of an aging disc

You already know that things change as you get older. Your skin becomes more fragile and less elastic, and your joints may become stiffer. The discs that provide cushioning between your vertebrae also change with time. 

These discs are shaped like bagels, and are made up of two parts. The tough, outer layer is called the annulus fibrosis. Inside, there’s a jelly-like layer called the nucleus pulposus. The discs absorb shock and allow you to move without your vertebrae touching. 

When you’re a child, each disc is composed of about 80% water. As you get older, they begin to dry out and are more vulnerable to injury. An injury or even day-to-day movement can cause a tear in either layer of your disc. 

A slight tear in the annulus fibrosis can be extremely painful because there are nerves in that layer of your disc. A tear that allows the nucleus pulposus to leak is even worse, because it contains proteins that can cause other tissues to become inflamed and tender. 

No blood to the rescue

When you cut your finger, or incur some other injury, the healing components of your blood rush to the scene and immediately begin repair. Whether you have a broken bone or a paper cut, the response is the same. 

The problem when you have a disc injury is that there’s very little blood supply to your discs. Your discs have less of a capacity to repair themselves than other bodily tissues. That means the cycle of recovery from a disc injury is very slow.


If an injured disc is left untreated, it goes through a cycle lasting 20 to 30 years before it can fully restabilize. However, that does not mean you have to spend decades in debilitating pain.

When the disc is first injured, you have acute pain that makes it very difficult to move normally. Then, the area becomes somewhat more stable, but not entirely stable, so your pain comes and goes. Eventually, your body restabilizes the injured area and you have less back pain. 

We don’t want you to live with unmanaged pain or to further aggravate your disc. Treatments to manage degenerative disc disease range from the use of over-the-counter medications like aspirin or ibuprofen to surgical intervention. 

Deciding on the right course of treatment depends on many individual factors. We usually begin with a conservative approach, including physical therapy and injections of steroids to manage inflammation. Though many people see positive results from this approach, some cases benefit most from surgical intervention if pain is severe and does not respond to a more conservative approach.

If you’ve been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, schedule an appointment at Downtown Pain Management. Working closely with you, our providers can determine a treatment plan designed to ease your pain so that you can enjoy your life. 

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