Degenerative Disc Disease

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One of the frustrating aspects of degenerative disc disease (DDD) can be the fact that most people aren’t aware they have the condition until they are examined for a related health condition. DDD refers to the gradual deterioration of the intervertebral discs between the vertebrae. Aging is the primary cause of DDD, commonly identified in individuals over the age of 50.

At OrthoAspen, our elite-grade orthopedic spine specialists are dedicated to helping patients navigate the causes, symptoms and treatment of degenerative disc disease.

Causes & Symptoms

Degenerative disc disease is actually a misnomer, as it’s not a disease but a condition that affects the strength, resiliency and structural integrity of the intervertebral discs. The cause of DDD results from:

  • Advancing age
  • Trauma
  • Injury
  • Repetitive movement
  • Improper posture
  • Poor body mechanics

The intervertebral disc is composed of an inflexible ring called the annulus fibrosus. This ring encloses a gelatinous inner structure called the nucleus pulposus. The discs are kept in position with the help of endplates between two vertebral bodies, with the intervertebral discs acting as shock absorbers.

Structural changes can cause a sequence of other alterations such as:

  • Compression of the nerves and nerve pain due to reduction in the disc height.
  • Presence of bone spurs or bony overgrowths (osteophytes).
  • Development of spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis (spondylosis).
  • Instability of the intervertebral joints and spine.

As we age, the rate at which the old, worn out cells are replaced is gradually reduced, resulting in the degenerative changes in the discs. In addition to aging, discs can be affected and accelerated by injury or trauma.

Every patient is different, and it’s important to realize that not everyone develops symptoms as a result of degenerative disc disease. Those who do exhibit symptoms may experience:

  • Back pain
  • Leg pain (that radiates throughout the leg)
  • Neck pain
  • Arm pain (that radiates throughout the arm)

As the discs between the intervertebral bodies start to degenerate, the entire lumbar spine loses flexibility resulting in back pain and stiffness.

Symptoms will vary depending on the individual, location of degeneration and severity of the condition.


OrthoAspen spine specialists utilize the latest and most precise approaches in diagnosing DDD. Your physician will go over your complete medical history and perform a physical examination.

The physical examination includes an assessment of the back for flexibility, range of motion and the presence of certain signs that suggest nerve root injury. This helps detect degenerative changes by testing muscle strength and reflexes to make sure that they are still functioning normally.

A series of X-rays may also be performed. If degenerative disc disease is present, the X-rays will often show a narrowing of the spaces between the vertebral bodies. This indicates that the disc has become very thin or has collapsed. Bone spurs formed around the edges of the vertebral bodies and around the edges of the facet joints in the spine can also be seen on an X-ray. As a result, the space available for the nerve roots begins to shrink. The nerve roots exit the spinal canal through a bony tunnel called the neural foramen. At this point, the nerve roots are especially vulnerable to compression.

In most cases, an MRI or a CT scan may be ordered to evaluate the degenerative changes, determine disc herniation and nerve root compression. A CT scan is often used to evaluate the anatomy of the spine to reveal the amount of space available for the nerve roots as well as the space within the neural foramina and spinal canal.


Both surgical and nonsurgical treatment options are available for the management of degenerative spine conditions. The choice of treatment depends on various factors such as the age of the patient and the severity of the condition. If possible, OrthoAspen physicians will try to apply conservative treatments prior to considering surgical procedures.

For people with no evidence of nerve root compression or muscle weakness, conservative treatment may be recommended, which includes:

  • Medication
  • Rest
  • Exercise and physical therapy

When conservative methods have not been successful in alleviating symptoms of DDD, your OrthoAspen physician may suggest surgical treatment.

Surgical options include decompression of the spinal cord along with a discectomy and fusion to remove the affected disc and fuse the adjoining vertebrae to stabilize the spine.

Our OrthoAspen physicians are committed to helping you effectively treat degenerative disc disease.

To request an appointment with an OrthoAspen specialist, simply click here to get started or call us at 970-544-1289.


Visit OrthoAspen in two convenient locations
Aspen Clinic
Aspen Valley Hospital
0401 Castle Creek Rd., Suite 2100,

Aspen, CO 81611
+(970) 544-1289
+(970) 544-1400
Basalt Clinic
Midvalley Medical Center
1450 E. Valley Rd., Suite 201,

Basalt, CO 81621
+(970) 544-1289
+(970) 544-1400