How Fast Does Degenerative Disc Disease Progress?

Millions of people worldwide know all too well how complex our backs can be, so most might not be surprised to learn that it degrades over time, giving us trouble as we grow older. It’s normal for our spines to not be as flexible and firm as younger people or before an injury.

But there is a condition that takes this degradation further and faster than normal: degenerative disc disease.
This condition, which primarily affects the spine, can be incredibly painful and debilitating if left untreated. But how fast does degenerative disc disease progress? In this post, we’ll discuss just that and why it’s crucial to seek immediate treatment from a spinal doctor for those individuals who get diagnosed.

Whether you have recently been diagnosed or suspect you may be suffering from this condition, understanding its progression and the importance of early intervention can greatly impact your quality of life. So, let’s explore the ins and outs of degenerative disc disease and the steps you can take to combat its potentially rapid progression.

First, Let’s Learn What Degenerative Disc Disease Is

Despite the name, degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a condition and not an actual disease which mainly affects the discs in your spine. These discs are like shock absorbers between the bones that make up your spine (vertebrae) that help it stay flexible and cushioned. Unfortunately, with DDD patients, these discs gradually deteriorate and lose their function. This can cause pain, stiffness, and limited mobility for those affected.

While DDD can happen to anyone, it’s more commonly seen in people over 50. In fact, research suggests that around 40% of folks between 40 and 59 years old, and a whopping 80% of those aged 80 or older, have some level of degenerative disc disease. Interestingly, studies have found that men tend to have slightly higher rates of DDD compared to women. However, it’s worth noting that these numbers might vary depending on the specific group of people being studied and the criteria used for diagnosis.

So, if you’re experiencing back pain, stiffness, or difficulty moving around, DDD might be the culprit. It’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare provider or a spine health professional to get a proper diagnosis and discuss the best treatment options for your specific situation.

Risk Factors for Degenerative Disc Disease

Spinal Surgeon Laguna Beach CA

The development of DDD is influenced by various factors related to the structural integrity of the intervertebral discs. The process of spine degeneration involves the gradual breakdown of the discs, leading to a loss of their ability to cushion and support the bones of the spine.

This degeneration can be caused by a variety of factors, including age, genetic and medical history, and even some lifestyle choices such as smoking and poor posture. Factors such as obesity and physical trauma can also contribute to the degeneration of the spinal discs.

Understanding these factors can help individuals make informed decisions in their daily lives and take steps to prevent or manage degenerative disc disease.

Common Symptoms in Degenerative Disc Disease Patients

Degenerative disc disease can cause a range of symptoms that can significantly impact an individual’s daily life. These neurological symptoms often vary depending on the location and severity of the degeneration, but we can still identify several to give us a DDD diagnosis.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain in someone with degenerative disc disease refers to the persistent and long-lasting discomfort experienced due to the degeneration of the spinal discs. Degenerative disc disease pain can range from mild to severe pain and may be constant or intermittent, often exacerbating with movement or certain activities.

DDD chronic pain can significantly impact a person’s everyday life, limiting their mobility, causing sleep disturbances, and affecting their ability to perform daily tasks.

Neck Pain

When DDD occurs in the neck region, it can lead to neck pain, also known as cervical pain. The neck pain associated with the disease is often chronic and can vary in severity, leading to stiffness, headaches, and even numbness.

Muscle Weakness and Spasms

Nerve compression due to degenerative discs can lead to muscle weakness. This weakness may be experienced in the arms or legs, depending on the location of the affected discs. One common sign is weakness in the legs and foot drop, which might tell the spine specialist that there’s nerve root damage.

Radicular Pain

Chronic pain and neck pain related to DD can also radiate (spread out) to other areas, with arm and leg pain being common, depending on the location of the affected discs

Stiffness in Movements

Individuals with degenerative disc disease may experience stiffness in the neck, torso, or just about any area in the back, making it difficult to move the body and head freely.

Numbness and Tingling

One neurological symptom is nerve compression can also cause numbness and tingling sensations in the areas supplied by the affected nerves. For example, if the lumbar discs are affected, numbness and tingling may be felt in the buttocks, legs, or feet.

Pain Comes and Goes

Certain activities, such as bending, lifting, or twisting, may exacerbate the pain caused by degenerative disc disease, but rest can provide temporary relief. Many find that lying down or taking breaks from activities helps alleviate their symptoms.

It’s important to recognize these symptoms and seek medical attention to prevent further progression and manage the condition effectively.

How Fast Does Disc Degeneration Progress?

The rate at which degeneration occurs in intervertebral discs can vary among individuals with disc disease. Disc degeneration is a complex process that involves changes in the structure and composition of the intervertebral discs over time. While it is difficult to predict the exact rate at which disc degeneration will progress in an individual, there are some factors that can influence the speed of progression.

Factors that Influence Speed of Progress

  • Genetics

    Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to spinal disc degeneration, which can make the condition progress more rapidly.

  • Lifestyle factors

    Certain lifestyle factors, such as smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, or too much high-impact exercise, have been associated with an increased risk of disc degeneration and may contribute to faster progression. People with jobs involving heavy lifting often see severe cases of DDD.

  • Injury

    Traumatic events in someone’s medical history, such as accidents or sports injuries, can accelerate the degenerative process in the intervertebral discs.

    It is important to note that disc degeneration is a gradual process and can take years to progress. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and healthy activity levels, and avoiding smoking can help slow down the progression of degenerative disc disease.

Stages of DDD

As degenerative disc disease advances, you may notice different stages of deterioration in your intervertebral discs.

  • First stage

    In the early stages, the first fracture begins to appear on your disc, and you may experience mild discomfort and occasional pain in your back. Daily activities in your everyday life may start to be difficult for you, and you should avoid any heavy lifting that might put more pressure on your disc and vertebral bones.

  • Second stage

    The discs then start to lose some of their water content in their outer portion, especially in their outer layer, causing them to become less flexible and more prone to damage.

  • Third stage

    As the disease progresses, you may begin to experience chronic pain and stiffness in your back, which can radiate to other areas, such as your legs or arms. The discs will start to thin and develop small tears, which can further contribute to pain and limited mobility. The body will attempt to heal the bones in the spine by creating bone spurs, which can add to the chronic pain.

  • Fourth stage

    In the advanced stages of spinal degenerative disease, the discs suffer permanent damage, and the symptoms progress to severe pain, nerve damage, and even spinal instability. The discs are no longer able to function properly and can potentially become herniated. Individuals with osteoporosis are particularly vulnerable to fractures in the affected area. A surgical procedure is likely the only treatment left available at this stage.

    It is important to seek medical attention early on to slow down the progression of the disease and manage your symptoms effectively.

Long-term Outcomes of Untreated DDD

Woman with lower back pain

Long-term outcomes of disc degeneration over time are influenced by various factors, including genetics, lifestyle choices, and traumatic events. A majority of patients with DDD can lead a relatively normal life if their condition is treated and if they have a healthy lifestyle, but untreated disc degeneration can lead to serious complications in the spinal column.

The following are four of the main complications:

Spinal Osteoarthritis

Spinal osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease or spondylosis, is a condition that affects the joints in the spine. It occurs when the cartilage that cushions the joints starts to wear down, leading to pain, stiffness, and other symptoms. Over time, the bones in the spine may develop bone spurs, which can further contribute to pain and limited mobility.

Spinal osteoarthritis is commonly seen in older adults, as it is a degenerative condition that develops gradually over time. It can affect any part of the spine, including the neck (cervical spine), upper back (thoracic spine), and lower back (lumbar spine). Symptoms may vary depending on the location and severity of the condition, but common symptoms include back pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, and muscle weakness. Treatment options for spinal osteoarthritis focus on managing pain and improving mobility through a combination of medication, physical therapy, lifestyle modifications, and in severe cases, surgery.


Osteoporosis is a condition characterized by a loss of bone density and strength, leading to an increased risk of fractures. It occurs when the body fails to form enough new bone or when the body reabsorbs too much old bone. As a result, the bones become weak and brittle, making them more susceptible to fractures, even from minor falls or bumps.

Osteoporosis can worsen DDD and is often referred to as a “silent disease” because it usually progresses without any symptoms until a fracture occurs. Common sites for fractures include the spine, hips, and wrists. Risk factors for osteoporosis include older age, being female, having a small body frame, a family history of the disease, hormone imbalances, and certain medications.

Treatment for osteoporosis typically includes lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, a calcium-rich diet, and quitting smoking, as well as medications to slow down bone loss and promote bone formation.

Spinal Stenosis

In spinal stenosis, the spaces within the spine, the spinal canal, narrow, putting pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. This narrowing is typically caused by the growth of bone spurs or the thickening of ligaments in the spine.

As spinal stenosis progresses, individuals may experience symptoms such as low back pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs, difficulty walking or maintaining balance, and even bowel or bladder problems. The severity of symptoms can vary, with some individuals experiencing only mild discomfort, while others may have significant pain and functional limitations. Treatment for spinal stenosis typically involves a combination of conservative measures like physical therapy, pain management techniques, and lifestyle modifications. In more severe cases, a spine specialist might recommend surgical intervention as necessary to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord or nerves and alleviate symptoms.

Degenerative Spondylolisthesis

Degenerative spondylolisthesis is a condition characterized by the displacement of one vertebra over another in the spinal column. It occurs as a result of degenerative changes in the spinal discs and facet joints, which are caused by the natural aging process or wear and tear on the spine. These changes can lead to the weakening of the ligaments and structures that normally hold the vertebrae in place, causing them to shift out of their normal position.

This condition commonly occurs in the lower back (lumbar spine) and can cause various symptoms such as lower back pain, stiffness, and radiating pain into the buttocks or legs. In severe cases, degenerative spondylolisthesis can also cause nerve compression, leading to symptoms like numbness, tingling, or weakness in the legs. Treatment options for degenerative spondylolisthesis depend on the severity of symptoms and may include conservative measures such as physical therapy, pain medication, and exercise or more invasive options like spinal fusion surgery to stabilize the affected vertebrae.

Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease

Effective treatment options for DDD patients can include physical therapy, medication, surgical procedures, and minimally invasive procedures. A certified spine specialist should be the one to recommend and prescribe these treatment options for pain management, improve function, and slow down the progression of the disease, or propose surgical intervention if needed.

Spinal Fusion

Advancements have made spinal fusion a viable option for some patients with severe degenerative disc disease. It can now be a minimally invasive procedure compared to techniques in the past, with small incisions made and specialized instruments used to fuse the affected vertebrae together, stabilizing the spine and reducing pain.

Artificial Disc Replacement

Artificial disc replacement surgery involves removing the damaged disc from patients and replacing it with an artificial disc implant. The artificial disc helps to maintain motion and stability in the spine while reducing pain and preserving the natural range of motion. There are specific types of ADR procedures including cervical and lumbar disc replacement surgery.

Physical Therapy

A physical therapist can play a crucial role in treating degenerative disc disease by designing a personalized physical activities program that focuses on strengthening the muscles surrounding the affected area.

Through targeted, low-impact exercises, manual therapy techniques, and posture correction, a physical therapist helps to relieve pain, improve flexibility, strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, and enhance overall mobility. Some physical therapists might also use techniques such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and traction may be used to relieve pain and promote healing, allowing the patient to first try more conservative treatment overall.

They also provide education on proper body mechanics and techniques to prevent further damage to the discs, enabling individuals to better manage their condition and improve their quality of life.


There are several medications available for treating degenerative disc disease. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Muscle relaxants such as cyclobenzaprine can be prescribed to alleviate muscle spasms and stiffness. In some cases, opioids like oxycodone or tramadol may be prescribed for patients with severe pain that is not responding to other medications.

There are also corticosteroid injections that can be administered directly into the affected area to provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation. It is important to note that medication alone may not be enough to manage degenerative disc disease, and a comprehensive treatment plan involving physical therapy, lifestyle modifications, and possibly surgery may be necessary for long-term relief.

Minimally invasive procedures

Minimally invasive procedures for degenerative disc disease aim to alleviate pain, restore function, and improve the patient’s quality of life. These procedures are less invasive than traditional open surgery, involving smaller incisions, minimal tissue disruption, and shorter recovery times. 

Among the top procedures is Intradiscal Electrothermal Therapy (IDET), which uses thermal energy to treat degenerative discs. A small probe is inserted into the affected disc, and radiofrequency energy is applied to heat and shrink the disc fibers. This procedure helps to seal any cracks or tears in the disc, reducing pain and improving stability.

There are also Epidural Steroid Injections. While not a direct treatment for degenerative disc disease, epidural steroid injections can provide temporary pain relief. In this procedure, a corticosteroid medication is injected into the space around the spinal cord and the facet joints, reducing inflammation and relieving pain.

For mild or temporary relief, there is also radiofrequency ablation, which disrupts the nerves responsible for transmitting pain signals

It is important to note that not all patients with degenerative disc disease are suitable candidates for minimally invasive procedures. The appropriateness of the procedure depends on factors such as the severity of the disease, the location of the affected disc, and the overall health of the patient.

It is important for individuals with degenerative disc disease to work closely with their healthcare providers to develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses their specific needs and goals. Treatment can help manage symptoms, improve quality of life, and slow down the progression of the disease.

Other Remedies for Your Spine in a Life with Degenerative Disc Disease

Alternative approaches to managing degenerative disc disease include non-pharmacological therapies, such as acupuncture and the use of spinal orthoses. These remedies aim to alleviate a patient’s pain, improve functionality, and enhance the quality of life for individuals suffering from degenerative disc disease.

Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body, stimulating

Spinal orthoses, such as braces and supports, provide external support to the spine, promoting stability and reducing stress on the affected spinal discs.

These non-pharmacological therapies offer a holistic approach to managing degenerative disc disease, providing individuals with alternative options to traditional pharmacological interventions.

Book Your Appointment with Dr. Hamid Mir and Treat Your DDD

If you are diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, it is crucial to see a spine specialist immediately for several reasons, but if left untreated, it can worsen. 

Consulting a spine specialist ensures that you receive accurate information and personalized care after an extensive physical examination from a specialist who is knowledgeable about degenerative disc disease. Spine doctors have extensive training and expertise in diagnosing and treating spinal conditions, allowing them to provide targeted and effective treatment options.

Besides the physical examination, they may also recommend additional diagnostic tests such as X-rays or MRIs to evaluate the extent of the disease and identify any underlying factors contributing to a patient’s symptoms.

Dr. Hamid Mir is a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon with fellowship training in combined neuro and orthopedic spine surgery techniques who is based in Orange County, CA. He has 18 years of experience in minimally invasive spine surgeries using advanced microscopic techniques.

With his expertise, compassionate approach, and medical team, you can trust Dr. Mir to guide you through the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery process, ensuring the best possible outcomes for your spinal health. Don’t wait; schedule your appointment today and take the first step towards a healthier spine.

By seeing professional spine surgeons in Laguna Beach, CA immediately after diagnosis, you can access the best available treatment options and receive comprehensive care tailored to your specific needs, ultimately improving your quality of life and minimizing the impact of degenerative disc disease on your daily activities.