Degenerative disc disease, or DDD as I’ll refer to it for ease of reading, is a broad and general diagnosis that is often given to people with lower back or neck pain. Some would say it’s a five dollar word for a one dollar condition. What DDD actually refers to is the wear and tear that happens to the discs in the spine. From previous blog posts we now know that the discs in the spine provide shock absorption and properly space the vertebra, the bones of the spine.
As the name implies it is a slow process that occurs over time. I hesitate to call it “normal” but certainly many people will encounter disc degeneration to some extent in their lifetime. As we age the discs in the spine start to lose water and become dehydrated. This causes them to become slightly thinner. As the disc loses water it becomes more susceptible to further degeneration such as tears in the outside of the disc, the annulus. A good way to think of it is cooking a hamburger on the grill. If you put pressure on the burger hard enough and long enough the juice will come out, the hamburger will get dry and eventually crack around the edges. Now, certainly this is not exactly what happens but it does serve as a decent analogy.
Many people with mild to moderate DDD have no or very little pain associated with it. Most are able to live life as they see fit and continue their healthy and active lifestyle without long term implications.