Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease is the gradual dehydration of the discs in your spine, commonly caused by trauma or repetitive stress. Dr. Ferrigno specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of degenerative disc disease, including the leading non-surgical treatment for damaged discs—disc restoration therapy.


What causes degenerative disc disease?

There’s a wide range of causes, but the leading cause is trauma or stress to the spine. While aging and genetics are a factor, injury or repetitive stress can lead to severe changes in specific discs, expediting degeneration in that area. Disc degeneration is really a loss of fluid in the disc. When you’re born, the discs in your spine are 85% fluid and nutrients. But over time, stress, trauma, or lack of motion results in the loss of fluid, or dehydration. The discs in your spine stay hydrated via a pumping mechanism, called the pump mechanism of disc nutrition. As you bend, twist, and move, that mechanism pumps nutrients and fluid from your blood supply into the disc, then pumps fluid and waste products out. This process keeps the disc healthy. If the disc is moving and pumping, functioning normally, you will have a healthy disc all your life. But if it is stressed or injured—in an auto-accident or a fall—a spinal segment can get misaligned. Once out of alignment, the segment doesn’t move or function as well, and, over time, that disc’s pumping mechanism is compromised. If it’s not pumping in enough fluid, and pumping out enough waste, the disc gradually dehydrates over time. As it dehydrates, it starts to tear, bulge, and herniate. As we get older, daily stresses can cause our discs to degenerate, but that’s just one factor. Usually trauma or stress exacerbates that degeneration, and this can include everything from an auto accident to repetitive stresses from daily activity, like bad posture, working on the computer for too long, holding your neck at an odd angle to support your phone, gardening, etc. These repetitive stresses commonly lead to degeneration—it’s not always one major trauma.

Does it happen in young adults and how?

Disc herniation and sciatica usually happens between 25 and 40, because we’re very active during that time. Falls, sports injuries, various daily traumas can take a great toll on your spinal health. Degenerative changes, like disc degeneration, tend to develop in your 40s, 50s, 60s, and on, because this involves the gradual dehydration of the injured disc over time.

What helps when you have degenerative disc disease?

Dr. Ferrigno always says, “Motion is the lotion.” Sitting on the couch and doing nothing is the worst thing you can do. A doctor-supervised exercise program, mild stretching, core exercises, these habits go a long way in managing degenerative disc disease. You want to avoid staying in one position for long periods of time. Icing your back when it’s inflamed can also offer relief and reduce inflammation. Ergonomics, good posture, and motion are key.

How bad can degenerative disc disease get?

With time, degenerative disc disease can become completely debilitating. Patients come into Bay Area Disc Center with walkers and canes, unable to participate in routine daily activities like cleaning the apartment, cooking, or taking care of themselves. As the condition worsens, you start losing balance, motor strength, and you experience severe pain. With a spinal injury, the longer you wait the harder it is to treat.