Degenerative disc disease describes a condition in which there is loss of the fluid content in the disc. Up until the age of 18-21, the intervertebral discs receive their nutrients and fluid by direct blood flow. After the age of 18-21, this direct blood flow stops and the discs begin receiving their nourishment through a sophisticated diffusion process and mechanical pumping action resulting from movement and weight-bearing activities. Unfortunately this system is not as effective as direct blood flow. Therefore, as we age our discs slowly begin to dry out. For most people, this disc degeneration results in some minor neck or back stiffness as we age but may never really cause pain. However, some people are more vulnerable to this degenerative process than others and it occurs more rapidly in these people resulting in a pathological condition, or disease process.
When a disc loses fluid it results in decreased disc height. Because these discs provide the cushion between the vertebrae or bones, this decreases the space between the bones. This decreased space can lead to narrowing of the foramen where the nerves exit the spinal cord to carry impulses to our arms and legs. This may result in neck and back pain with or without pain down the arm or leg (sciatica). This can also result in numbness, burning, tingling or weakness in the arm or leg.