A Closer Look At Degenerative Disc Disease and Sciatica

Posted on 
May 3, 2024

Degenerative disc disease and sciatica are two prevalent conditions that influence not just physical health but also quality of life and daily function. These conditions, rooted in the complex anatomy and physiology of the spinal column, can lead to debilitating chronic pain, limited mobility, and a variety of other symptoms that challenge everyday life. In this article, we’ll discuss the structure and function of the spine and the complexities of degenerative disc disease and sciatica. Our goal is to provide a thorough understanding of their nature, causes, symptoms, and the various treatment options that are available.

Exploring the Structure of the Spine

The structure of the human spine is an architectural wonder within the body, structured around vertebrae that form the backbone’s core. These vertebrae are divided into distinct segments: the cervical spine consists of the top seven vertebrae, the thoracic spine in the mid-back comprises twelve vertebrae, and the lumbar spine in the lower back has five. The spine extends further into the sacrum, which includes the five sacral vertebrae typically merged into a single bone, ending in the coccyx or tailbone. Nestled between the vertebrae are the spinal discs and surrounding them are ligaments that contribute to the overall stability and function of the spine.

The Function of the Spine

The spine’s dual purpose is to provide a support system for the body while protecting the spinal cord from potential harm. Each vertebra is designed with a protective bony arch over the spinal cord and a sturdy anterior section to bear the body’s weight. The spinal discs, located between the vertebrae, act as shock absorbers. Their design dampens the stresses of movement on the spine, though it leaves them susceptible to injuries such as disc herniations. When these discs or the surrounding ligaments are compromised, it can cause localized pain and other symptoms, emphasizing the importance of spinal health and integrity.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is not a disease per se but a condition that describes the natural deterioration of the spinal discs over time. These discs serve as the spine’s shock absorbers, allowing for flexibility and movement. As these discs wear down, they can lose height and elasticity, leading to symptoms like pain, instability, and decreased mobility.

What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is often the result of the natural aging process of the spinal discs. Key factors include:

  • Aging can be a factor, as discs lose hydration and elasticity over time, reducing their ability to absorb shock
  • Wear and tear from daily activities and sports can cause discs to degrade over time
  • Sudden injuries can cause swelling, soreness, and instability in the discs
  • Chronic poor posture can put undue pressure on the spine, accelerating disc degeneration
  • A predisposition to disc degeneration can be inherited 

Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

  • Activity-related discomfort in the neck or back
  • Intense bouts of neck or back discomfort lasting from days to months
  • Relief from discomfort through regular changes in posture
  • Reduced pain during walking or running, with an increase during extended periods of sitting or standing
  • Centralized pain in the back or neck, generally not favoring one side over the other, and usually not extending below the knee or into the arms from the neck.

How to Treat and Manage Degenerative Disc Disease

Treatment for degenerative disc disease includes a wide array of options:

  • Physical therapy using exercises to improve flexibility, strength and core stability
  • Pain management, using over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription medications
  • Heat and cold therapy to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, weight management and adopting an ergonomic posture
  • Alternative therapies like acupuncture, massage and chiropractic adjustments
  • Low inflammation diet to eliminate artificial ingredients
  • Surgical interventions like spinal fusion or disc replacement for severe cases

It’s important to work closely with a healthcare provider to develop a personalized treatment plan.

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica describes the symptoms of leg pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness that originate in the lower back and travel through the buttocks and down the large sciatic nerve in the back of the leg. This condition is a symptom of an underlying medical condition that is related to the sciatic nerve.

What Causes Sciatica?

The root causes of sciatica are diverse, each leading to the irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve:

  • Herniated or slipped disc, where a disc in the spine presses on the nerve
  • Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on nerves
  • Piriformis syndrome, where the piriformis muscle irritates the sciatic nerve
  • Spondylolistheses, a condition where a vertebra slips out of position and compresses nerve roots
  • Osteophytes or bone spurs, which are bony growths that can press against nerves
  • Pregnancy, due to the increased pressure on the sciatic nerve from the uterus
  • Spinal injuries or infections that affect the spine and nearby nerves.

Symptoms of Sciatica

  • Pain radiating from the lower back down to the buttocks and legs, often affecting one side
  • Sharp, burning, or shooting pain, especially when sitting or standing up
  • Numbness, tingling, or weakness in the affected leg or foot
  • Discomfort that worsens with sudden movement, coughing, or sneezing
  • Difficulty moving the leg or foot due to acute pain or weakness

Treatments for Sciatica

  • Physical therapy exercises to improve posture, strengthen muscles, and increase flexibility
  • Managing discomfort with either over-the-counter analgesics or prescription medications
  • Alternating hot and cold packs to relax muscles and reduce inflammation
  • Epidural steroid injections into the area around the spinal nerve to reduce inflammation
  • Ergonomic adjustments and activity modifications to relieve nerve pressure
  • Surgical options for severe cases of incapacitating pain or progressive muscle weakness


Degenerative disc disease and sciatica are serious conditions that require a proactive approach to management and a commitment to a healthy lifestyle. By embracing treatment and management practices as outlined in this article, individuals facing these conditions can look forward to regaining control over their health, improving their quality of life and looking toward a future with reduced pain and enhanced mobility.

Experience immediate and expert orthopedic care for recent injuries at Forté Sports Medicine and Orthopedics. Our facilities in Carmel, Noblesville, Tipton and Greenwood are designed to provide you with same-day access, extended service hours and a variety of treatment options. Originating as a dedicated sports medicine provider in Indianapolis 40 years ago, Forté has grown into a full-service orthopedic center catering to individuals of all ages and lifestyles. Our team includes 20 specialized physicians and a dedicated support staff, offering unparalleled care throughout Central Indiana and to major sports teams. At Forté, we ensure swift, specialized treatment for acute injuries while recommending ER visits for more severe cases.

For more information about our practice or to schedule an appointment, contact us via our website or give us a call at 317-817-1200.

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