Degenerative Disc Disease


Chances are, you’ve heard of back problems that involved a slipped, ruptured and herniated disc. But you may be less familiar with what a disc is, or why a problem with one can cause pain and other problems throughout your body.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Even though your spinal discs are durable, they’re still prone to wear-and-tear. Just as the brake pads in your car wear down over time, your discs can break down as you age. This deterioration leads to a variety of symptoms known as degenerative disc disease.

Some of the age-related changes that can occur in your discs include:

  • Loss of fluid - The center of your discs may gradually lose fluid, causing them to dry out and shrink. When this happens, your discs lose flexibility and absorb less shock. And when your discs become thinner, there is less distance between each vertebra. Your vertebrae may even begin to rub against each other.
  • Cracks or tears - The outer layer of your discs can crack or tear, allowing the jelly inside to spill out. If a tear is large enough, it can also cause the disc to bulge, rupture or break into pieces.

Your discs can also deteriorate because of certain medical conditions, including arthritis, or serious injuries such as a fall or accident.

What Are Spinal Discs?

Your spine consists of a long chain of bones called vertebrae, which starts in your neck and ends in your tailbone.

Between each of your vertebrae are 23 round pieces of tissue called spinal discs. These discs resemble jelly doughnuts. While the outside is tough and rubbery, the inside is filled with a jelly-like substance.

Together your discs cushion your vertebrae. They absorb shock and prevent the bones from rubbing against each other. They also make your spine flexible, allowing you to turn, twist and bend comfortably.

Regardless of the cause, disc degeneration can cause pain, numbness, weakness and other problems in your neck, back, legs or arms.

Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment

Mercy’s orthopedic specialists and neurosurgeons have experience treating most forms of degenerative disc disease. For mild symptoms, conservative treatments may control your pain, strengthen your back muscles and improve spine flexibility. These include:


When symptoms are severe and conservative treatments aren’t helping, your doctor may recommend surgery. Our surgeons perform the latest procedures to correct severe disc degeneration. Surgery options include:

If your discs have literally become a pain in the neck (or back), talk to your Mercy physician about your treatment options. We’ll help you find effective ways to manage your pain – so you can also find a new lease on life.

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