Lumbar Degenerative Disk Disease

Your spine is made up of 33 bones called vertebrae. They are stacked on top of each other. The lumbar spine is your lower back. And the sacral spine is below that, in your pelvis. The vertebrae support and protect your spinal cord.

Your spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that runs through the hollow portion of the vertebrae. There are a series of nerves, also called nerve roots, leading from the spinal cord to different parts of the body. The space between each vertebra has one nerve root on the left side, and one nerve root on the right side.

Most vertebrae are separated by flexible disks of cartilage that act like shock absorbers and allow your spine to move. These disks have a soft core called the nucleus, surrounded by a tough outer layer called the annulus.

With age, your disks can lose their height and ability to cushion. This process is called disk degeneration. Other things that can cause disk problems include lifting heavy loads, trauma, repeated forward bending, and genetic factors.


When a disk is injured, the soft inside core can bulge out or even break through the tougher outer layer. This is known as a herniated, or ruptured, disk. The part of the disk that bulges out can put pressure on a nerve root or the spinal cord. This can cause symptoms such as pain and numbness in different parts of the body.

In some cases, one of the sciatic nerves may be affected. These are large nerves that lead to each side of the body from the lower spine, traveling down through the legs. Pressure on the sciatic nerve can cause pain in the lower back, buttocks, calves, and feet. This pain is called sciatica.

Disk degeneration can cause new bone to grow on the spine. These new bone growths are called bone spurs. Sometimes bone spurs will press on nerves or the spinal cord and cause pain.

Degenerative disk disease may also cause the spinal canal to become narrow. When this happens, bone presses on the nerve roots. This is called spinal stenosis. It can cause pain and nerve problems in the legs.


To diagnose your problem, your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and give you a physical exam.

X-rays are usually the first diagnostic test used to look at the spine. You may also have a C-T scan or an MRI.

Your healthcare provider may also put electrodes on your body to look at the electrical activity in a nerve.


Many minor cases of lower back pain can get better with little or no treatment.

Exercise, including walking and stretching, are known to be helpful. A physical therapist can teach you how to do appropriate exercises and stretches.

Activities that can stress the spine, like heavy lifting, should be avoided.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, called NSAIDs, can reduce pain and inflammation. These include ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin.

Other treatments include hot and cold packs, electrical stimulation, ultrasound therapy, and steroid injections.

If your condition is more serious, surgery may be an option.

There are several different surgeries that can help relieve symptoms of degenerative disk disease. Talk with your healthcare provider about which options are best for your situation.

Remember, full recovery can take up to a year. And, the success of the surgery often depends on how well you follow your physical therapy plan after surgery.

Things to Remember

Minor lower back pain often gets better on its own.

Daily exercise can help relieve lower back pain.

Physical therapy and NSAIDs help many patients with lower back pain.

What We Have Learned

  1. The lumbar spine is in the middle back. True or False?
    The answer is False. The lumbar spine is the vertebrae of the lower back.

  2. Disks between vertebrae can change as a person gets older. True or False?
    The answer is True. Age-related changes in these disks are common.