In the healthy neck, there is a disc filled with fluid between each bony element of the spine (vertebra). The disc helps to cushion the vertebrae from moving together under the weight of the head.
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
When a disc degenerates (breaks down), the disc:
- Loses water. With less water, the disc becomes thinner and has less padding to absorb movement. The disc may become less flexible.
- Shrinks, which can narrow the space available for the nerve roots and spinal cord.
- May have tiny tears or cracks in its outer layer (annulus fibrosus).
As the disc deteriorates, the vertebrae may also begin to break down or touch.
Causes of Degenerated Discs in the Neck
Degeneration of the spine can start from over-use, an accident, or just the wear and tear of everyday life.
Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease
Depending on the amount of degeneration, patients with degenerative disc disease experience varied levels of pain, less neck motion, and weakness in the arms and hands. Not all disc degeneration results in pain or lack of mobility.
Disc degeneration can cause the:
- Inner disc (nucleus pulposus) to squeeze through the outer disc (disc bulge or disc herniation).
- Spinal canal to narrow and pinch the cord and nerves (spinal canal stenosis).
- Spinal cord to be irritated causing a loss of feeling or movement (myelopathy).
- Nerve roots to be irritated or pinched causing pain, weakness, or tingling down the arm and possibly into the hands (radiculopathy).
Degenerated Disc Diagnosis
Your doctor will perform a physical examination, checking for range of motion and strength in your neck and arms. Your doctor will also order images of your neck: x-ray, MRI, or CT scan. In the images, your doctor will look for thinning discs, unhealthy bone growth, and pinching of the nerve roots and spinal cord.
Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment
Conservative treatment is usually the first choice in the care of degenerative disc disease. Your doctor may suggest physical therapy, rest, anti-inflammatory medications, exercise, heat, and lifestyle changes. If conservative care does not help, if a nerve is pinched (compressed), or if the pain is severe, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Discuss treatment options with your doctor. Need help finding a doctor? Visit the surgeon locator.