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The Progression & Complications of Degenerative Disc Disease

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What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is a condition in which the discs, located between the individual vertebra, deteriorates and break down. The discs no longer provide support between the vertebrae, which leads to pain and other symptoms.

Progression of Degenerative Disc Disease

To understand the progression of degenerative disc disease, first it is important to understand how intervertebral discs work. Intervertebral disc are the shock absorbers of the spine, with one positioned between each vertebra. The outside of each disc is made out of a fibrocartilaginous material, which makes the outside of the disc strong and keeps the discs shape. The inside of a disc contains a gel-like substance, which provides the cushioning between vertebrae. The body had a difficult time repairing damage to discs as there is no direct blood flow to or into disc to bring nutrients for repairs.


Degenerative disc disease starts as a result of wear and tear on the spine. It progresses slowly. As an individual ages, the fibrocartilaginous material that a disc is made out of starts to weaken, leading to herniated or ruptured discs. The inside of discs may also dehydrate, causing changes to the gel-like substance inside, which leads to disc shrinking and loss of height causing spinal instability.

Degenerated discs cannot absorb shock as well as a regular disc and this results in the facet joints of the spine being overworked. A facet joint is a joint which connect each vertebra to the one below it and it located at the posterior of the vertebra. The overworked facet joints can cause the cartilage meant to protect the facet joint to be worn away, creating facet joint problems. A facet joint without cartilage can move too much, a condition called overidding. The overridding of facet joints leads to the creation of bone spurs in the spine. Bone spurs develop in order to reduce the movement of the facet joints. Bone spurs can result in pinched nerves.

Possible Complications of Degenerative Disc Disease

A complication refers to an unfavorable progression or consequence of a condition. Degenerative disc disease can have complications, like any other condition. A complication is not the same as comorbidity. A comorbidity is when two or more chronic conditions exist at the same time, in an individual, independent of each other.

Examples of possible complications include, but are not limited to:

  • Osteoarthritis of the back
  • Herniated or ruptured disc
  • Spinal Stenosis
  • Depression
  • Increased pain
  • Immobility or decreased mobility leading to reduce flexibility
  • Immobility or decreased mobility leading to reduced muscle tone
  • Immobility leading to blood clot in the legs / deep vein thrombosis
  • While it is tempting to lay flat or reduce mobility to reduce pain, this can put an individual at increased risk for multiple complications. Mobility is an important factor that an individual has control over to reduce complications.

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