Discs Break Down in the Spine

Degenerative disc disease is a condition that affects your spine. The discs in the spine normally function as small cushions for the bones of the spinal column, called vertebrae. Over time, aging can cause wear and tear of the discs. They may begin to shrink, break down or deteriorate. As the discs lose their height, the vertebrae move closer together and this results in a reduction of flexibility of the spine.

In addition to aging, other causes of degenerative disc disease may include:

  • Back injuries
  • Disc tears from sports or other activities

Degenerative disc disease results in arthritis of the spine and may lead to other problems, such as herniated discs or pinched nerves.

Symptoms, Diagnosis and Outlook

A majority of patients with early disc degeneration have no symptoms. If they do develop, common symptoms include:

  • Back/neck pain
  • Stiffness and decreased flexibility

Your symptoms can vary, but most people have problems with their lower back and neck. Pain and other symptoms can radiate to the arms and legs.

To diagnose degenerative disc disease, you will need to share your medical history and have a physical exam. Your doctor may also order X-rays and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans.

Your treatment may include:

  • Avoiding certain activities
  • Applying heat or cold packs
  • Over-the-counter pain medications (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen)
  • Physical therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Oral steroids
  • Prescription medications (muscle relaxants, nerve pain modulating agents)
  • Spine injections/pain management

Most people with disc degeneration are asymptomatic, and therefore do not need surgery. Patients with disc degeneration and back/neck pain only are not ideal candidates for surgical treatment because the results of surgery are highly unpredictable. In contrast, if a patient develops herniated disc with radiculopathy as a result of disc degeneration, they would be a good candidate for surgery if conservative treatment fails. The results of surgery for radiculopathy are more favorable and predictable.

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Why Choose Penn State Health for Care

Top-Ranked by U.S. News & World Report

Penn State Health includes the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, ranked as one of the best orthopedic providers in the country by U.S. News & World Report. This honor was earned because our doctors consistently deliver exceptional patient care and outcomes through their commitment to advanced treatments, translational research and provider training.

Coordinated, Specialized Care Through a Dedicated Institute

Our orthopaedic specialists work together through our dedicated Penn State Bone and Joint Institute. There, they focus on providing you with multidisciplinary, tailored care and state-of-the-art treatments and technologies. This produces the highest-quality patient outcomes. All physicians at the institute are fellowship-trained and subspecialize in additional niche areas of orthopaedics, including arthritis care and joint arthroplasty (joint replacement surgery).

Designated as a Blue Distinction® Center

Penn State Bone and Joint Institute is a Blue Distinction Center for Knee and Hip Replacement. This superior designation from BlueCross BlueShield is only given to health care facilities and providers that stand out for their expertise in delivering specialty knee and hip replacement care. Our surgeons specialize in a range of pain-relieving procedures, including partial knee replacement, total joint arthroplasty, joint preservation surgery and complex revision surgery. They perform more than 1,000 joint replacement procedures every year.

Confidence in Treatment Through Education

We developed a special joint replacement education website just for patients undergoing joint arthroplasty. The website takes you step by step through the joint replacement process. From things to consider before choosing surgery to recovery after surgery, you’ll find the information you need to help you feel confident in your decision to undergo joint replacement.

Advancing Orthopaedic Medicine Through Research

The doctors and researchers in our Center for Orthopaedic Research and Translational Science at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center are committed to advancing our field through scientific discovery and education. As the only academic medical center in central Pennsylvania, Hershey Medical Center is a national leader in research, in partnership with Penn State College of Medicine, and on the leading edge of new treatment options, including clinical trials.

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