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Degenerative Disc Disease

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is a common condition marked by the breakdown of one or more of the discs that separate the bones (vertebrae) of the spine. The discs provide cushioning between the vertebrae and absorb pressure put on the spine. While the discs in the lumbar (lower) spine are more often affected, any part of the spine can have disc degeneration. Depending on the location of the affected discs, degenerative disc disease can cause periodic or chronic pain in the back or neck. Pain is often worse when sitting, bending, twisting, or lifting objects.

What You Can Expect at UTHealth Houston Neurosciences

At UTHealth Houston Neurosciences, fellowship-trained neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuro-oncologists, interventional pain management specialists, and radiation oncologists work together to determine the care each patient needs. This approach allows our specialists to share each other’s insights, leading to better treatment decision-making and outcomes.

We first investigate options for nonsurgical treatment, including medical management, pain management, physical therapy, rehabilitation, and watchful waiting. When surgery is needed, our neurosurgeons routinely employ innovative minimally invasive techniques. Throughout the treatment process, our team works closely with the doctor who referred you to ensure a smooth transition back to your regular care plan. While you are with us, you can expect expert care, excellent communication, and genuine compassion.

Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease

When discs herniate, the protruding disc can press against any of the spinal nerves that run from the spinal cord to the rest of the body. The pressure can cause pain, weakness, and numbness in the back and the legs. Herniated discs can cause nerve pain known as sciatica, which travels along the sciatic nerve running from the lower back down the length of each leg.

As a disc degenerates, bone spurs may form at the edges of the vertebrae. Bone spurs may compress the spinal nerves, leading to weakness or numbness in the arms or legs. If bone spurs compress the spinal cord, you may develop problems with walking and bladder and bowel control. Over time, a degenerating disc may break down completely, leaving no space between two vertebrae, which can result in impaired movement, pain, and nerve damage.

Early Signs of Degenerative Disc Disease and Diagnosis

Although most people experience some degeneration of the spine as they age, not everyone experiences back pain. For those who do, symptoms include pain that ranges from nagging to severe and disabling in the back or neck, buttocks, and thighs; pain in the neck that radiates to the arms and hands; numbness and tingling in the arms and legs; and weakness in the leg or foot muscles. Symptoms usually develop slowly over time, but they may worsen suddenly.

Our spine specialists base diagnosis on a physical exam and medical history, including a description of your symptoms and when you experience them, and an MRI to confirm damage to discs.


Most people with degenerative disc disease can be treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or pain relievers, heat or ice applications, and physical therapy. Exercise can also increase blood flow to the back, which helps reduce inflammation.

Other conservative treatments include injections, also called nerve blocks, given by an interventional pain management specialist. Injections may include epidural steroid injections in the lumbar spine, facet joint injections, single nerve root blocks, and sacroiliac joint injections. Radiofrequency rhizotomy (ablation), an office procedure, temporarily turns off a nerve’s ability to send pain messages to the brain.

People who still experience pain or are significantly restricted in their daily movements after trying conservative treatments may consider surgery to remove the deteriorated disc and fuse the two vertebrae. Options for surgery are artificial disc replacement and spinal fusion.

The UTHealth Houston Neurosciences Spine Center brings together a multidisciplinary team of board-certified, fellowship-trained neurosurgeons, neurologists, researchers, and pain management specialists who work together to help provide relief for even the most complex problems. People who suffer from radiculopathy, spondylosis, spinal stenosis, herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, peripheral nerve disorders, spinal cord injury, or other trauma benefit from our collaborative expertise in managing spine disorders.

Anatomy of the neck and spine

The spine is divided into the following regions:

  • The cervical region (vertebrae C1-C7) encompasses the first seven vertebrae under the skull. Their main function is to support the weight of the head, which averages 10 pounds. The cervical vertebrae are more mobile than other areas, with the atlas and axis vertebra facilitating a wide range of motion in the neck. Openings in these vertebrae allow arteries to carry blood to the brain and permit the spinal cord to pass through. They are the thinnest and most delicate vertebrae.
  • The thoracic region (vertebrae T1-T12) is composed of 12 small bones in the upper chest. Thoracic vertebrae are the only ones that support the ribs. Muscle tension from poor posture, arthritis, and osteoporosis are common sources of pain in this region.
  • The lumbar region (vertebrae L1-L5) features vertebrae that are much larger to absorb the stress of lifting and carrying heavy objects. Injuries to the lumbar region can result in some loss of function in the hips, legs, and bladder control.
  • The sacral region (vertebrae S1-S5) includes a large bone at the bottom of the spine. The sacrum is triangular-shaped and consists of five fused bones that protect the pelvic organs.

Contact Us

At UTHealth Houston Neurosciences, we offer patients access to specialized neurological care at clinics across the greater Houston area. To ask us a question, schedule an appointment, or learn more about us, please call (713) 486-8100, or click below to send us a message. In the event of an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.