Degenerative Disc Disease: It May-or May Not-Be Causing Your Back Pain

If you suffer from back or neck pain, it may be due to a deteriorating disc. But if youre over age 60, there are likely to be other causes as well.

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Degenerative disc disease. Sounds ominous, doesnt it? Particularly when youre suffering from lower-back or neck pain-since it is often blamed for pain in these sensitive areas. Yet, despite its gloomy-sounding name, it is not degenerative, nor is it a disease, says Daniel Mazanec, MD, vice chairman of Cleveland Clinics Center for Spine Health. "Degenerative disc disease describes a process or condition that is virtually universal. Its no more a disease than gray hair." More than 90 percent of individuals 60 and older, in fact, show some evidence of the process through magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] scanning. And in many cases, the observed changes dont cause any symptoms at all. In young people, a healthy disc is made up of approximately 70 percent water. "Its almost like a water balloon that serves as a shock absorber between the vertebrae," Dr. Mazanec says. However, over time, discs lose water, due in part to aging, but also to genetic and environmental factors such as smoking. In fact, cigarette smokers have premature degenerative disc disease because nicotine constricts the blood vessels in the disc, cutting off circulation, Dr. Mazanec explains. Other factors, as yet unknown, also cause disc dehydration and changes in collagen and other components of the disc that are reflected in an MRI. "The disc changes from bright white and shiny in a younger person to black in an older person, which is why the slang term for the condition is black disc disease," he notes. "But to say its a disease implies its an illness, which simply is not the case. Its a natural process."
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