What is degenerative disc disease?

As the spine ages, the wear and tear of daily activities can cause degeneration of the discs that act as cushions between the bones of the spine (vertebrae). Degenerative disc disease can begin as early as your 30s or 40s, but most of the time it occurs slowly and doesn’t cause symptoms. It most often affects the cervical spine in the neck and lumbar spine in the lower back, because these are the areas of the spine that experience the most movement.

Some people are more prone to accelerated wear and tear of their discs and can develop symptoms such as:

  • Pain from inflammation of one or more discs
  • Numbness due to an inflamed disc compressing the spinal cord or a nerve
  • Weakness down the arm or leg, also due to compression of the spinal cord or nerves

Physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications and lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and exercise, can slow the progression of degenerative disc disease and alleviate symptoms. The vast majority of people with this condition do not require surgery.

As discs deteriorate, they can lead to other conditions such as cervical spinal stenosis and myelopathy (spinal cord damage), lumbar spinal stenosis and herniated discs.

Learn more about brain and spine neurological conditions and treatment at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Diagnosing degenerative disc disease

Early diagnosis of degenerative disc disease allows you to make lifestyle improvements such as weight loss, workplace modifications or increased exercise to slow disease progression.

Following a thorough history, physical and neurological exam, Ohio State Spine Care specialists may order imaging and other diagnostic tests to gather additional information and confirm a diagnosis:

  • X-rays of the spine
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Electromyography (EMG) and electrophysiological testing

Many people have more than one degenerative disc. Our pain management specialists can identify the disc most associated with pain using a test called a discogram. Under local anesthetic, you receive a sterile fluid injected into the discs most likely to be responsible for your pain. Your response to the sensation within each disc and the information generated from the test help us identify which disc or discs need further treatment.

Degenerative disc disease treatment

Ohio State offers treatments ranging from physical therapy to the most complex neck and spine surgeries. Our physicians, therapists and other caregivers provide you with options that increase mobility and reduce pain. The vast majority of people who come to Ohio State Spine Care don’t require surgery.

One of Ohio State’s strengths is our physical therapy program, with therapists who specialize in complex, degenerative spine conditions. Following an examination of posture, neck and back mobility, strength and flexibility, our physical therapists customize a plan for you.

We take into account any impairments or functional limitations you have. Typically, you’ll work one-on-one with a therapist on pain-relieving movement strategies and on improvements in strength and flexibility.

Additional nonsurgical treatments include:

  • Education on back care, such as ways to avoid excessive bending forward or repetitive twisting and bending. In addition, our therapists give recommendations on how to make your work and home environment healthier for your spine
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit—a form of electrical stimulation that provides short-term pain relief
  • Spine orthobiologics, also known as stem cell therapy, activates the body’s natural healing process through injections of the body’s own healthy cells into the injured area to stimulate tissue regeneration and natural healing
  • Real-time ultrasound imaging (RUSI) of movement in the spine area to retrain the deep stabilizing musculature of your spine (a highly researched, evidence-based intervention)
  • Oral anti-inflammatory medications and/or steroid spine injections
  • Acupuncture (provided at Ohio State Spine Care) or dry needling for pain control through Ohio State’s Center for Integrative Medicine
  • Weight loss counseling, with an emphasis on healthier eating and exercise to ease pressure on the spine
  • Pilates, yoga and aquatic therapy to strengthen back muscles

If you’re not responding well to these treatments, our spine experts are skilled in intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDET), which uses radiofrequency energy from a heat probe to shrink the disc without harming it.

In rare situations, we may recommend surgery for a spinal fusion if you have chronic symptoms that have not responded to treatment. At Ohio State, we use the least-invasive surgery possible to fuse vertebrae together and restore stability to the spinal column.

Why choose Ohio State for degenerative disc disease?

What is degenerative disc disease?

Francis Farhadi, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon, explains the approach to care for patients experiencing degenerative disc disease at Ohio State Spine Care.

Getting her life back after spine surgery

Before Beth had surgery to correct her degenerative disc disease, her days revolved around controlling her back pain. Since having artificial disc replacement surgery with Francis Farhadi, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon specializing in spine disorders, Beth’s days are focused on what she enjoys, like being active and spending time with her family.

Andrew’s back to pain-free

Andrew’s degenerative spine disorder caused pinched nerves, which led to severe back pain. Nonsurgical treatments like physical therapy and medication did not relieve his pain, so he had a minimally invasive surgical procedure with Francis Farhadi, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon specializing in spine disorders at Ohio State, to relieve pressure off the nerves in his back. Now Andrew’s pain-free and living his life without restrictions.

Ruth shares her experience

Before Ruth visited Ohio State Spine Care she had difficulty walking and her days were spent in pain. Francis Farhadi, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon specializing in spine disorders, performed a surgery procedure to correct her spine and relieve pressure. Now, she's found relief and is actively enjoying her life again.



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Areas of focus include:

Biomechanical Testing: We are doing biomechanical testing to assess the lower spine before and after surgery. A specialized vest helps us assess your spinal movement and measure the effectiveness of surgery. It ultimately may provide valuable information about which treatment methods will best increase mobility and function of the spine.

Back Pain Consortium: We are members of the International Consortium for Health Outcomes Measurement (ICHOM). Membership in this elite organization allows us to engage with other top U.S. medical centers in global research studies on back pain. As we measure our results against established international standards, we share best practices and elevate our standard of care.

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Additional Information

Please obtain a physician referral before scheduling with our Spine Center and request previous imaging studies (e.g., MRI, CT, X-ray) on a CD from the place where your tests were performed. Please bring to your appointment these and other test results related to your back (e.g., EMGs, bone density reports, ultrasound reports) from your doctor(s).

Preparing for your visit

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