Degenerative Disc Disease

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a term used to describe a condition, rather than a disease, of the intervertebral discs in the spine that have “worn out” over time. The disc is one of the structures in the spine that is prone to degenerative changes as it undergoes wear and tear with age or sometimes misuse (such as smoking). This can be painful and greatly affect the quality of life. While disc degeneration is part of the normal aging process and is not a problem for most people, DDD can be a source of severe chronic pain for certain individuals.


Signs and Symptoms

With symptomatic DDD, patients can have chronic low back pain that sometimes radiates to the hips. There may be pain in the buttocks or thighs while walking. Sporadic tingling or weakness through the knees may also be present. Similar or even more severe pain may be felt when sitting, bending forward, lifting, or twisting. There may be relief of pain when lying down.


Dr. Cho conducts a thorough history and physical examination during your initial visit to identify the source of pain. Various radiographic images such as x-rays, MRI, and CT scans may be used to help assess your condition.

Non-surgical Treatment

In many instances, DDD can be successfully treated without surgery. For acute pain, a short course of bed rest or activity restriction may be helpful. When the pain is prolonged and more intense, one or a combination of treatments is often used. Some of these non-operative treatments include guided exercise to condition the body aerobically and to strengthen certain important muscle groups for back health, physical and occupational therapy, various modalities (cold/heat treatments, massage therapy, acupuncture, and manipulation among others), education and attitude adjustment to focus on psychological or emotional causes of pain, as well as the judicious use of medications, such as muscle relaxants, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or Tylenol. Epidural steroid injections may be recommended at times.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery is absolutely the last resort in the treatment of back pain. Dr. Cho recommends surgery only when there is an identifiable source of pain that is debilitating in nature and/or causing nerve irritation or damage. The type of surgery will vary depending on the cause of pain as not all degenerated discs are known to be problematic and many people with DDD do not have symptoms.