Staged Degenerative Disc Disease: Definition and Management

La degenerative disc disease is a condition that affects the discs located between the vertebrae of your spine. These discs act as shock absorbers and their degeneration can lead to pain and other problems.

When it concerns more than one vertebral floor, we then speak of staged degenerative disc disease. We zoom in on this condition in this article.

Spine Anatomy

The vertical spine is one of the most important structures in the human body. It supports most of the body's weight, provides attachment points for muscles and ligaments, and protects the spinal cord, which transmits information from the brain to the rest of the body.

spine anatomy

A healthy spine is strong but flexible and offers great freedom of movement. The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae and is divided into five different regions:

  • The cervical region is found in the neck region. It is made up of 7 vertebrae (C1-C7) and allows most movements.
  • The thoracic region is in the central part of the back. It is very rigid and consists of 12 vertebrae (T1-T12), larger than the cervical vertebrae, but smaller than the lumbar vertebrae.
  • La lumbar spine is in the lower back. Made up of five vertebrae (L1-L5), it is the largest and strongest area of ​​the spine and supports most of the weight of the human body. It allows movement, including flexion and rotation.
  • The sacrum consists of a spine with 5 heads (S1-S5) and is connected to the pelvis.
  • The coccyx is made up of 4 bones welded together.

The intervertebral discs are between the vertebrae. The intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers to protect the vertebrae and allow rotation and flexion of the spine. Each disc is made up of two parts:

  • Annulus fibrosus, a strong outer fibrous ring.
  • Nucleus pulposus, in the center, gelatinous and soft.

Degenerative Disc Disease: Definition

Degenerative disc disease is therefore not a real disease, but a natural wear and tear on the spine. It can develop in any part of the spine, but the areas most at risk are:

degenerative disc disease at the L4-L5 level
  • First vertebrae (cervical) with possible neck pain and damage to the arms;
  • From the last vertebrate (lumbar spine) with possible back pain and involvement of the buttocks, thighs and legs.

As long as no pressure is exerted on the nerves, the patient does not feel any particular discomfort, whereas in the event of compression, symptoms may appear, including particularly intense and annoying pain.

Often the degenerative disc disease have a favorable prognosis and simple medical treatment can effectively control the symptoms. In cases where this is not the case, complications may arise and require surgery.

What do you mean by staged?

Staging is a descriptive technique that delineates the severity of clinical manifestations of disease. In the case of disc disease, the term "staggered" means that the attack concerns several discs and not just one.

medical imaging to identify degenerative disc disease

This degenerative process can affect any disc in the spine, from the cervical region to the lumbar region. Symptoms develop slowly and gradually over time.

Although staged disc disease is relatively common, it is often asymptomatic in its early stages. However, as the degenerative process progresses, it can lead to pain and difficulty moving. In some cases, staged disc disease can also lead to nerve damage and weakness.

Degenerative disc disease: Diagnosis

Degenerative disc disease is diagnosed by a combination of physical examination andmedical imaging. During the physical examination, the doctor suspects disc or nerve damage, but cannot predict the exact levels with certainty. Medical imaging is used to clarify the diagnosis.


In order to make the correct diagnosis of degenerative disc disease and to exclude organic causes (more or less serious) of the pain, the doctor may request an X-ray or, even better, an MRI of the spine to complete the examination.

  • X-ray: An X-ray is often the first examination requested when a person has back pain. An x-ray can show degenerative changes in the spine, such as narrowing of disc spaces, bone spurs and vertebral fractures. However, X-rays cannot show the soft tissues of the spine, such as discs, ligaments, and muscles.
  • MRI: MRI uses magnetic waves, instead of X-rays, to create images of the spine. MRI can show the soft tissues of the spine, such as discs, ligaments, muscles, and nerves. An MRI is often ordered if an X-ray does not show enough detail or if a person has neurological symptoms.

Prognosis of staged disc disease?

In many cases, the disease is asymptomatic and does not cause any problems. However, in some cases, disc degeneration can lead to pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility.

The severity of staged degenerative disc disease can vary from person to person. In some cases, the condition progresses slowly and affects only one disc. This is called multi-stage degenerative disc disease. In other cases, the degeneration is faster and affects several discs.

The prognosis for degenerative disc disease depends on a number of factors, including the extent of damage, level of inflammation, and nerve damage. In general, staged disc disease does not necessarily imply a worse prognosis; The prognosis of degenerative disc disease is variable and depends on the severity of the condition.

Staged degenerative disc disease: What to do?

Degenerative disc disease should only be treated if it is accompanied by symptoms, otherwise it does not require treatment.

During the acute pain phase, it is recommended to follow these simple remedies:

  • Temporarily rest;
  • Avoid standing too long;
  • Avoid lifting heavy loads;
  • Possibly taking anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids and painkillers in the form of tablets, medicated patches.
  • Consult a physiotherapist (physiotherapist) or osteopath.

It is best not to overuse common over-the-counter medications and instead contact your GP for appropriate drug treatment. Often, especially in the elderly population, long-term use of NSAIDs can be associated with the development of serious side effects.

Surgical treatment

In the most serious cases of degenerative disc disease, associated with significant and persistent pain despite conservative treatment, it may be necessary to resort to surgery.


The main surgical treatments for degenerative disc disease are:

  • La discectomy ;
  • spinal fusion;
  • Artificial disc replacement.

These are major procedures that should only be considered after a detailed discussion with your surgeon, who will assess the suitability of the procedure in your particular case.

After the operation, it is important to follow the rehabilitation protocol prescribed by the surgeon in order to promote healing and avoid complications.

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