What Is Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease?

Instructor: Amanda Robb
Lumbar degenerative disc disease obviously affects the back and spine, but did you know it also affects the rest of the body? Read on to learn more about the anatomy of the spine, how this disease happens, and how it is treated.

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Imagine a very tall skyscraper downtown. This massive building seems to defy gravity, providing support for thousands of workers each day. Now image if the beams in one of the floors started to wear away. This would not be good for the building--eventually, it might start to shift, creating an unsafe environment for the workers. Although you're not quite as tall as a skyscraper, your body has a system similar to the beams holding the building in place; it is called the spine.

Your spine is made of small bones called vertebrae that have a space for your spinal cord to run through. The spinal cord is a system of nerve cells that carry messages between your brain and your body. The vertebrae are individual bones, not one long bone, which allows your spine to flex and bend. In between the vertebrae are spinal discs, whose job is to cushion the bones and provide support.

Spinal anatomy
spinal anatomy

In lumbar degenerative disc disease, these discs start to wear out, just like the beams in our building analogy. The result is problems for the vertebrae, spinal cord, and the rest of the body. Before we get started with more details, let's take a closer look at spinal anatomy.

Spinal Anatomy

As mentioned previously, the spine is made of individual vertebrae that hold the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a very important connection between your brain and body. People with spinal damage can become paralyzed because their brains can no longer talk to the muscles. The location of the damage determines which part of the body will be affected. There are 33 vertebrae in the spine, each connected with a disc.

The lumbar spine includes the 20th through 25th vertebrae, which are officially called L1-L5 (L stands for lumbar). The lumbar region holds most of the weight of the body and is most affected by lifting heavy objects. When people advise to lift heavy boxes 'with your legs~,' they are suggesting you protect your lumbar spine by using a larger muscle group to do the work. The lumbar spine connects with parts of the legs, so severe damage to the lumbar nerves can result in problems walking.

Regions of the spine
spinal column


The discs between the vertebrae have a rigid outer layer called the annulus, but the center, or nucleus, of the discs is squishy and gel-like.

Spinal disc anatomy
spinal disc anatomy

In degenerative disc disease, the outer covering of the disc cracks or the nucleus wears out, becoming thinner and unable to cushion the vertebrae. This is why we decrease in height as we get older--there is less fluid in the nucleus, so the vertebrae compress, decreasing our height.

Most people have degeneration of their discs as they get older. Inflammation from a specific injury, like lifting a box, or just everyday wear and tear eats away at the discs. As the discs become inflamed, they break down more and more, making the disease chronic and progressive. Infection and tumors can also cause degenerative disc disease, but these are less common.

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