Mild disc degeneration is a normal part of the aging process and is generally not a problem in and of itself. However, for certain individuals an even relatively mildly degenerated disc may cause pain of varying intensity. DDD is thought to be one of the most common causes of persistent low back pain. Disc degeneration is not technically a disease, but rather a condition in which the discs dry out and shrink very slowly over time. Once discs begin the process of degeneration, potential related problems may arise in the spine due to the shrinkage, e.g. facet arthritis, muscle guarding pain.
What are bulging/protruding/herniated discs?
Common in both younger and older adults, bulging discs are not usually a sign that something serious is occurring. In fact, abnormalities that show up radiologically such as bulging or protruding discs are seen at high rates in many patients, often without causing any back pain at all. Many discs begin to bulge as a part of the normal aging and degenerative process noted above. A disc may become problematic, however, if it bulges or protrudes enough to cause narrowing of the spinal or nerve canals. Bone spurs, if present along with the bulging disc or associated with arthritic facet joints, can also add to the narrowing of these canals. This process is referred to as stenosis and often causes leg as well as back pain.
Lastly, herniated discs are the more extreme version of a protrusion. The jelly like matrix of the disc is ejected from the disc itself and can come in direct contact with the nerve roots or spinal sac/cord. This is a relatively frequent cause of sciatica (leg pain due to “pinched nerve”).