Degenerative Disc Disease (Back & Neck)

Degenerative back and neck pain might come with the territory as we grow older, but that doesn't mean you have to hurt. When you're ready to heal, Hoag is ready to help. At Hoag Spine Institute, we combine the advanced technology, conservative treatment options and personalized strength and flexibility programs to find the best possible outcome for every patient. With a robust, whole-body approach to diagnosing and treating spinal issues, Hoag Spine Institute is your best choice for degenerative back pain treatment in Orange County.

Need Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment? Orange County Runs on Hoag.

Degenerative disc disease is part of the normal aging process; however, it may cause pain, herniated discs and loss of mobility. That can have a big impact on your quality of life.

But at the Hoag Spine Institute, our fellowship-trained team of spine specialists have the tools and techniques you need to heal and stay active. For those with pain from degenerative disc disease in Orange County who need state-of-the-art surgical options, our advanced tools include Medtronic’s Mazor X Stealth Edition robotic spinal surgery platform.

Offering precision, 3D preoperative planning tools and the utmost in accuracy, Mazor X Stealth minimizes recovery time and pain. Hoag was the first hospital in Southern California to have this groundbreaking technology. Our commitment to surgical excellence and advanced tools is why Hoag has been named a Center of Excellence in Robotic Surgery.

When we say there’s no place like Hoag, we mean it. Read on for what you need to know about degenerative disc disease, including symptoms, key terms and ways to reduce your risk. To schedule an appointment or get a second opinion, contact Hoag today at 949-764-1411 or through our online form.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a condition in which the spinal discs between each vertebra begin to deteriorate, or break down, over time.

The spinal discs serve several important functions, including acting as shock absorbers for the spinal column, allowing the spinal column to flex, bend and twist. In addition, the intervertebral discs cushion each of the vertebrae that make up the spine.

Over time, due to normal aging, injuries and wear-and-tear, the rubbery discs of the spine can experience disc degeneration, a process in which the spinal discs wear down and slowly lose their flexibility, elasticity and shock-absorbing abilities.

Because the spinal discs are very close to the spinal cord and nerve roots, disc degeneration can cause pain and lead to other problems, such as spinal instability and herniated discs.

What are the Different Types of Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease can affect any part of the spine, but it primarily causes pain in the lumbar spine (the lower back) and cervical spine (the neck area).

When DDD occurs in the lower back, it is known as lumbar degenerative disc disease. When the condition occurs in the neck area, it’s called cervical degenerative disc disease.

What Can Cause Degenerative Disc Disease?

The exact cause of degenerative disc disease is unknown, including why some people experience the condition while others don’t. However, there are several factors that are known to contribute to degenerative disc disease, including:

  • Aging: As we age, the discs in the spine naturally lose moisture and nutrients. Over time, that can lead to the discs becoming less flexible and more prone to tears and weakness that can contribute to DDD.
  • Genetics: Some people are genetically predisposed to having weaker discs in their spine, which can make them more likely to experience disc degeneration as they grow older.
  • Injuries: Trauma to the spine due to issues like falls, accidents or playing full-contact sports can increase the risk of experiencing disc degeneration as you get older. Even seemingly minor injuries of the spine can increase your risk.
  • Repetitive stress: Activities that put repeated strain on the spine, like heavy lifting during manual labor, poor posture or participating in a high-impact sport like competition gymnastics can also play a role in causing repetitive stress injuries that may lead to degenerative disc disease.
  • Your occupation: Careers requiring heavy lifting, physical labor, prolonged sitting or lifting or twisting in awkward positions can increase the risk of experiencing degenerative disc disease.
  • Obesity: Being obese can put extra weight on your spine and spinal discs. That causes more wear-and-tear as you move, which can potentially increase your risk of experiencing degenerative disc disease, or experiencing it at a younger age.
  • Smoking: Smoking reduces blood flow throughout the body, including the blood that flows to the tissues of the back to keep them strong, stable and healthy. That can increase your chance of experiencing degenerative disc disease.

What are the Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease can cause a variety of symptoms, based on where degenerated discs occur in the back, the patient’s overall health and other factors. Common symptoms of degenerative disc disease include pain and a variety of other symptoms:


Degenerative disc disease can cause severe pain, usually in the lower back or neck. It’s often described as a dull ache or a sharp, burning sensation. The pain can be centered in the lower back, radiate down the buttocks and legs (sciatica) or be felt in the neck and shoulders, sometimes radiating down the arms to the hands.

The pain associated with degenerative disc disease often worsens with sitting, bending down, lifting and twisting the torso. The pain can come and go, with episodes lasting days or months. The pain experienced during episodes can severely impact a person’s mobility and cause problems with many activities, including sleeping, standing, sitting or driving for work.

Other Symptoms
  • Stiffness: The back or neck may feel stiff or achy, especially in the morning or after sitting for a while.
  • Muscle weakness: The muscles in the back or legs may feel weaker than usual, which can make it hard to walk or climb stairs.
  • Numbness and tingling: Degenerative disc disease can cause a “pins and needles” feeling in the arms or legs if the nerves in the spine become compressed.
  • Loss of balance: In severe cases, degenerative disc disease can lead to a loss of balance and coordination.

Can Degenerative Disc Disease Increase Risk for Other Spinal Conditions?

Degenerative disc disease can lead to a variety of serious complications, especially if left untreated. These issues include:

Herniated Discs

Herniated discs (also called a “ruptured disc”) occur when the soft material inside a spinal disc pushes through a tear in the disc’s strong, flexible outer layer. That can put pressure on spinal nerves, which can cause issues like pain, numbness, tingling or muscle weakness.

Though a herniated disc in the lumbar spine is more common, it can happen to any disc in the spine, including in the neck. There are a number of treatments for herniation of the intervertebral discs, including minimally-invasive spinal fusion, in which two or more vertebrae are joined together, and artificial disc replacement. Read more about herniated discs.

Bladder or Bowel Issues

In rare cases, a severely herniated disc in the lower back can put pressure on the bundle of nerves at the base of the spine that help control bladder and bowel function. That can lead to issues like urinary or fecal incontinence. Experiencing loss of bladder or bowel control during an episode of lower back pain should be treated as a medical emergency.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a condition characterized by an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal, which can cause compression of the spinal cord and nerve roots. A variety of issues can cause spinal stenosis, including bone spurs and spondylolisthesis. Read more about spinal stenosis from Hoag.

Neurological Problems

In rare and very severe cases, degenerative disc disease can lead to issues that cause permanent nerve damage. That can result in muscle weakness, loss of sensation and even partial paralysis.

Spinal Fractures

By reducing the cushioning of the spine, degeneration of the spinal discs may increase a person’s risk of experiencing spinal fractures, a condition in which the vertebrae crack. In severe cases of osteoporosis, the spinal discs break even with moderate pressure. Spinal fractures are often related to osteoporosis, a condition that can cause progressive weakening of the bones. Visit here to learn more about osteoporosis.

Who is Most at Risk to Develop Degenerative Disc Disease?

Growing older is the biggest risk factor for degenerative disc disease, as the condition affects many people over age 60 due to the normal wear-and-tear on the spine from a lifetime of use.

However, there are certain factors that can increase your risk of experiencing DDD. These may include:

  • Genetics: A family history of back or spine issues makes it more likely that you’ll experience issues with your own spine. Also, some people just have weak spinal discs that are more likely to experience disc degeneration.
  • Being obese: Extra body weight puts more stress and pressure on your spine and intervertebral discs. That can lead to damaged discs, and degenerative disc disease.
  • Certain occupations: Careers that involve heavy lifting, repeated bending or twisting, or experiencing severe vibrations can cause damage to the discs and increase your risk.
  • Smoking: Smoking tobacco reduces blood flow to the body, including the discs. That can make it harder for them to heal after an injury, which can lead to DDD.
  • Previous injuries: Even minor back injuries — the classic “old football injury” you experienced back in high school or college — can sometimes contribute to disc degeneration as you get older.

Read here about how Hoag helped Candice Timmons who, in her 20s, was involved in a car accident that resulted in chronic back pain that impacted her ability to fully enjoy life for years.

Is There Any Way to Reduce My Risk Factors for Degenerative Disc Disease?

While there’s no definitive way to prevent degenerative disc disease, there are certain steps you can take to potentially slow the process. These steps may include:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking
  • Get regular physical exercise, or targeted physical therapy
  • Practice good posture
  • Use proper techniques and equipment when lifting

Taking these steps can reduce your risk of developing degenerative disc disease while helping strengthen the spinal muscles and other tissues that support and protect the spine.

Need a Degenerative Disc Disease Specialist in Orange County? Hoag Has Your Back.

At the Hoag Spine Center, our fellowship-trained team of spinal experts, pain management specialists, surgeons and patient support personnel go to work every day with one unified goal: to provide quality care in Orange County for those dealing with issues of the back, neck and spine.

Our commitment for providing pain relief to those with degenerative disc disease that is causing spinal cord or nerve root compression (a “pinched nerve”) is particularly strong. Hoag is always looking for the conservative treatments that can reduce the significant pain signals DDD can cause without surgery. But if you do need spine surgery, Hoag is proud to offer Orange County advanced technologies and a patient-focused approach.

From robotic assisted back surgeries to full-body scanning that can reveal postural problems that may be contributing to your pain, Hoag has what you need to come out swinging against degenerative disc disease.

With the Hoag Spine Institute on your team, you can leave pain, mobility issues and uncertainty of degenerative disc disease behind. To schedule an appointment or get a second opinion, contact Hoag today at 949-764-1411 or through our online form.

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