Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease is a condition that occurs in the discs between the vertebra that breakdown, fragment and herniate due to normal wear and tear.  Most patients respond well to non-surgical treatments including medication and physical therapy. However, those who do not see improvement after six months may require surgery. At Ortho Illinois we offer the least invasive, least aggressive options to relieve your pain and improve your quality of life.

Spine Anatomy

The spinal discs are shock absorbers between the vertebrae bones. They provide height, and allow bending, twisting and flexing of the spine.

What is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of neck and low back pain. Degenerative disc disease is technically not a disease but is the natural result of wear and tear over the course of 20-30 years.

What causes disc degeneration?

  • Drying out of the discs
  • Normal wear and tear
  • Injuries that cause swelling, soreness and instability

With age the discs loose water and thin out causing spinal pain. Most people have some disc degeneration by age 60. Because discs have a poor blood supply, they have little ability to repair themselves after an injury.


Many people who have some degeneration will not experience pain.

Lumbar Pain:

  • Pain can come on suddenly without warning, following an injury or slowly over time.
  • Commonly degenerative disc pain is low-level chronic pain with episodes of severe pain that may last days or weeks.
  • Pain that gets worse when sitting and improves with standing, walking and running. Sitting causes the lower lumbar discs to carry a heavier load more than when standing.
  • Pain that gets worse with bending, lifting and twisting, and standing for long periods.
  • Pain in the low back buttocks and upper thighs can be sharp, hot or shooting pain (radicular pain), including sciatica.
  • Pain that improves when changing position often or lying down.
  • Periods of severe pain in the low back, buttocks and thighs.
  • Numbness and tingling in the legs.
  • Muscle spasms, weak leg muscles and foot drop signal damage to the nerve root.
  • Pain that interferes with normal daily activities and may affect sleep

Neck Pain:

  • Pain may come on suddenly without warning, following an injury or slowly over time.
  • It may be mild or severe, dull or sharp, causing the patient to restrict motion.
  • Constant pain that between the shoulder blades, and pain that radiates down the arms and into the hands and fingers causing tingling, numbness and weakness of the shoulder, arms or hand (radicular pain).
  • Difficulty gripping or picking up objects.
  • Headaches, a stiff neck and general soreness.
  • Pain that interferes with normal daily activities and may affect sleep

Nerve Root Compression

Pain that progresses and involves radiating pain, sensory loss and weakness, numbness and tingling, and a loss of reflexes either in the arms or legs is a warning sign of nerve root compression. A nerve root is a bundle of fibers that come off of the spine. It controls movement and carries sensory information from the body to the spine and brain to create feelings. Nerve root compression symptoms indicate a herniated disc. Nerve root compression can cause severe motor and sensory loss. These symptoms are serious and require evaluation because continued pressure on the nerve roots can cause permanent damage and loss of function.


Your Ortho Illinois surgeon will review your medical history including a discussion of when the pain began, where it hurts, whether there is a family history of disc disease, any injuries, your occupation, lifestyle, posture and sleep habits. They will listen carefully while you describe your symptoms. They will conduct a physical exam and order an MRI which will show damaged discs. Additional testing may be ordered to rule out other conditions.


The goal of treatment is pain management and improving mobility and quality of life.

Conservative Treatment

Non-surgical pain management, acupuncture, back braces, and lifestyle modifications. 70-80% of patients find pain relief and improved mobility with conservative treatments. Physical therapy and over the counter pain medications can be very beneficial.
Epidural steroid injections will ease pain, swelling and inflammation.


Surgery is a last resort reserved for patients with severe pain and disability, when all conservative measures are ineffective. Our fellowship trained Drs. Braaksma, StanleyBroderick and Alexander have the skills, training and experience to address all your spine problems.

Ortho Illinois is a Regional Spine Care Center devoted to science-based protocols to resolve pain, restore function, and avoid surgery. We have offices in Rockford, Algonquin, and Elgin, Illinois.  Contact us to schedule a consultation to learn how you can get back to the life you love.