Living with Degenerative Disc Disease

By Bradley Duhon, MD

Degenerative disc disease is like growing gray hair; most people have it at some point in their life, but its not always a painful experience!


What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is the natural aging or traumatic breakdown of the shock-absorbing discs in your spine which can cause the spinal anatomy to be altered from ‘normal’. This “degeneration” between the bones in your spine typically takes the form of a shrunken disc, possibly including the leaking out of the disc’s gel-like center—much like squeezing a jelly-filled donut causes the donut to go flat as jelly leaks out.

In some people, the loss in disc height caused by the shrunken disc can result in symptoms such as mild or debilitating pain, with additional possible issues like numbness or tingling sensations. This is because a disc’s height helps maintain the nerve openings within the spinal column. As discs shrivel up and lose height, these openings narrow, pinching the nerves that provide sensation at each level of your body. Further, if the acidic central material of the disc leaks, it can also press against surrounding tissue, irritating, or putting pressure on these sensitive areas.


Can you live a normal live with degenerative disc disease?

Many people experience no symptoms of degenerative disc disease as they get older. For patients with symptoms, there are several approaches that can be utilized to mitigate these issues and avoid future recurrences of them.


How can you manage degenerative disc disease symptoms?

While many people with mild to moderate symptoms (33-50%) will have their symptoms resolve without significant medical intervention1, those experiencing even significant discomfort can follow a stepwise approach to effectively manage episodes of pain caused by degenerative disc disease.

  • Significant pain or other nerve-related symptoms may cause muscular issues; pain reduction should be the first priority after an episode.

    • Ice, heat, and anti-inflammatory over-the-counter medications (NSAIDs) can be used to help bring your symptoms under control.

  • Often, alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture, or chiropractic manipulation—or a even a combination of these therapies with ice/heat and NSAIDs—are effective.

  • If the above remedies are insufficient, medical advice should be obtained and followed.

  • As symptoms subside, a gradual, controlled resumption of normal activities and a responsible rehabilitation and exercise regime should be undertaken.

  • To best maintain results, activity modifications and dietary/hydration changes should be considered and implemented.


About the Author:

Dr. Bradley Duhon is a board-certified Neurosurgeon at Front Range Spine and Neurosurgery with multiple locations in the Denver, Colorado area. Dr. Duhon earned his undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University and his medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He completed his neurosurgical residency at the University of Utah.

Dr. Duhon currently serves as the Director of Neurosurgery and Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Parker Adventist Hospital. He holds teaching and consulting positions with companies specializing in cutting edge sacroiliac joint stabilization techniques and intraoperative spinal robotics. Dr. Duhon was also the Principal Investigator for a multicenter, prospective clinical trial that evaluated the efficacy and safety of minimally invasive SI Joint fusion, the results of which were published in early 2016.


Opinions expressed herein are those of Dr. Duhon based upon his qualifications as a surgeon and President of Jackson Neurosurgery Clinic.

1 Degenerative Spinal Stenosis North American Spine Society Clinical Guidelines, 2011.

Important Note: The patient information presented is for general education purposes only. As with any spine surgery, there are potential benefits, complications, and risks associated with disc replacement and spinal fusion procedures. Individual results may vary. It is important that you discuss the possible risks and potential benefits of various procedures with your doctor prior to receiving treatment, and that you rely on your physician’s best judgment. Only your doctor can determine whether you are a suitable candidate for a specific surgical procedure.

They Regained Their Lives

These individuals can inspire your journey to healing and life after disc replacement surgery—and the hope of freedom from spine-induced pain and discomfort.

Find a Surgeon

To Find a Spine Surgeon That's Right for You, Use our Surgeon Locator

Find a Surgeon Today