As we age, the water and protein content of the body’s cartilage changes. This change results in weaker, more fragile and thin cartilage. Because both the discs and the joints that stack the vertebrae (facet joints) are partially composed of cartilage, these areas are subject to wear and tear over time (degenerative changes). The gradual deterioration of the disc between the vertebrae is referred to as Degenerative Disc Disease.
Degeneration of the disc is medically referred to as spondylosis. Spondylosis can be noted on x-ray tests or an MRI scan of the spine as a narrowing of the normal “disc space” between the adjacent vertebrae. An MRI scan may show the early changes of a loss of water content in the disc.
Degeneration of the disc tissue makes the disc more susceptible to herniation and can cause local pain in the affected area. Any level of the spine can be affected by disc degeneration. When disc degeneration affects the neck, it is referred to as cervical disc disease. When the mid-back is affected, the condition is referred to as thoracic disc disease.
Disc degeneration that affects the lumbar spine is referred to as lumbago. Lumbago causes pain localized to the low back and is common in older persons.
Disc degeneration can occur at any level of the spine and can cause pain in the affected area with radiation of pain along the nerves emerging from the spinal canal at that level. Symptomatic lumbar disc degeneration is most common in people of working age, usually between 30 and 50.