Similarities and Differences Between a Herniated Disc and Degenerative Disc Disease

Similarities and Differences Between a Herniated Disc and Degenerative Disc Disease

A herniated disc isn’t the same as degenerative disc disease (DDD), even though they may cause similar symptoms and you can have both at the same time. But when it comes to back or neck pain, it’s important to know the difference and which one is causing your discomfort.

At Douglas J. Abeles MD & Associates in Castro Valley, California, our team of spine specialists knows back pain has many causes and getting an accurate diagnosis is essential for directing treatment. 

Because a herniated disc and DDD affect the same component in the spine, we want to explain the similarities and differences between these two spine conditions and how we treat them.

Herniated disc vs. degenerative disc disease

Each vertebra in your spine is separated by an intervertebral disc. This disc cushions the bones and acts as a shock absorber. A herniated disc and DDD are conditions that affect the intervertebral discs.

Herniated disc

Your intervertebral discs are made up of a tough exterior called the annulus fibrosus and a soft gel-like center called nucleus pulposus. You have a herniated disc when the gel-like center pushes through (herniates) the tough exterior. 

Herniated discs may occur from an acute injury or the degenerative changes that affect your discs as you get older, making them more vulnerable to tears and herniation.  

Degenerative disc disease

DDD is the wearing away of the intervertebral discs as you get older. This disc degeneration is a normal part of the aging process. But as the discs wear away, the spacing between the bones decreases, allowing the bones to rub together.

A herniated disc is one of the problems you may develop with DDD. But the wearing away of the discs may also cause other spine conditions like spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), spondylolisthesis (out of place vertebrae), or adult scoliosis. 

A herniated disc and DDD may affect any part of your spine, but most often occur in the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) spine. 

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of a herniated disc and DDD are similar. It’s possible to have either one of these disc conditions and not have any symptoms. But both often cause neck or back pain.

With a herniated disc, the pain may improve over time or get worse and cause other problems like sciatica (pain along the sciatic nerve), numbness or tingling in the extremities, or weakness in the legs.

DDD pain may come and go and worsen over time. Like the herniated disc, you may also have radiating pain or muscle weakness. 

In both conditions, symptoms occur from compression or irritation of a spinal nerve or spinal cord.

Treatments for spinal disc problems

Treatment for a herniated disc and degenerative disc disease is similar. Initially, we recommend conservative care and have you work with our physical therapist, chiropractor, and acupuncturist, who create plans that help you get relief from your pain.

If your pain continues or worsens, we may try steroid injections or perform a procedure such as discectomy and spinal fusion where we remove the damaged disc and fuse the spinal bones together to stop the pain.

Neck and back pain are common and occur from many causes. We offer comprehensive care and take a multispecialty team approach. Let us help you get the right care for your spine condition. Call our office at 510-538-0430 today to request an appointment.

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