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This Common Condition Could Explain Your Back Pain

Originally published May 19, 2020

Last updated April 26, 2023

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Severe or long-lasting back pain may be a sign of degenerative disc disease, which can affect your quality of life as early as your 30s.

Back pain is a common problem, affecting 8 out of 10 people at some point in their lives. It often goes away on its own, especially if you help the process along with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. If it doesn’t go away, or if the pain is severe, it could be a sign of an underlying condition.

One of the most common conditions behind back pain, degenerative disc disease can cause serious nerve and muscle pain and — in severe cases — even impact your mobility. The good news, though, is that most cases can be resolved without surgery, according to David S. Cheng, MD, a spine, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Keck Medicine of USC and clinical associate professor of neurological surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. But in order to properly diagnose and treat your back pain, it’s important to talk to a doctor.

What causes degenerative disc disease?

“Spinal discs are ‘spacers’ or ‘cushions’ between the vertebrae in the back,” Dr. Cheng explains. “They help to provide shock absorption and stability in the spine.”

Normal aging, genetic predisposition, overuse and misuse can lead to tears in a disc’s outer ring, along with other signs of degeneration.

“When tears occur, they can cause pain, and when they heal, they can leave scars rather than healing fully,” Dr. Cheng adds.

Eventually, the disc may flatten, and the surrounding vertebrae may squeeze close together. The flattened disc may herniate, resulting in pain and mobility issues.

What are the symptoms?

Degenerative disc disease can affect the neck or lower back. According to Dr. Cheng, symptoms can include:

  • Severe pain in the neck or lower back that comes and goes
  • Pain that is worsened by bending, twisting and sitting
  • Pain that is relieved by lying down

How is degenerative disc disease treated?

If you think you may have degenerative disc disease, getting prompt attention will be the key to restoring and maintaining your quality of life.

“Accurate and timely diagnosis, coupled with appropriate patient education, is the cornerstone to treating any spinal condition,” Dr. Cheng says.

He notes that mainstay treatments are nonsurgical and include activity modification, postural re-education, core stabilization and aerobic exercise.

Medication and physical therapy can play an important role, too. And while most patients don’t need surgery to get better, it remains an option for rare cases.

When to call your doctor

Dr. Cheng recommends seeking medical attention if your pain is severe or persistent after a few weeks.

“Other warning signs may include sciatica (buttock and leg pain), leg weakness, leg numbness, poor balance and difficulty with bowel movements or urination,” he adds.

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Kate Faye
Kate Faye is an experienced freelance writer.