What is a Degenerative Disc Disease?


The word “disease” in degenerative disc disease is controversial. Many experts would prefer to call it a “disorder” rather than a disease. A look at the causes explains why calling it a disease is sometimes a misnomer.


What is a Degenerative Disc Disease? 1

Our “discs” are soft structures between the vertebrae in the spinal column. They give the spinal column its flexibility. When we’re young, the discs are composed of 80 percent water. As we age, they dehydrate and become thinner.


Degenerative disc disorders can be caused by accidents or aging. Some conditions that fall under the umbrella label of degenerative disc disease include:

  • Ageing: As we age, the watery discs become thinner. In some people, this doesn’t cause major problems, but it can cause back or neck pain.
  • Bone spurs may appear on ageing vertebrae.
  • A ruptured or herniated disc is a disc that has “cracked” open. Some of the jelly-like contents come in contact with spinal nerves and cause pain.
  • Sciatica occurs when a ruptured disc comes in contact with the sciatic nerve that runs the length of the spine. It can be very painful or the pain can be felt in the buttocks or leg.


Ruptured discs and sciatica are often preventable. Sciatica often occurs in the lower back and can be caused by improper lifting. When that happens, the onset can be immediate and extremely painful. Ruptured discs are sometimes caused by poor posture over a long period of time. The onset can be gradual and if the causes are identified early, the symptoms needn’t get worse.