Scientists have known since at least the early 1990s that degenerative disc disease is hereditary. If degenerative disc disease runs in your family, sadly, your personal risk is higher. That said, degenerative disc disease is caused by a number of modifiable and non-modifiable factors. Focusing on the risk factors that you can change may lower your overall risk of degenerative disc disease.
Degenerative disc disease requires two things: 1) a structural abnormality in the spine that 2) causes symptoms, such as neck or back pain, weakness, numbness, and/or shooting limb pain. This typically involves a breakdown of the intervertebral disc; that is, the disc that can be found in between spinal bones (vertebrae).
Unfortunately, yes, degenerative disc disease can be inherited. We know that degenerative disc disease tends to run in families. Lumbar disc herniation, for example, clusters in families. Some estimates from studies in twins indicate that the heritability of degenerative disc disease is about 75%—a very high number.
We do not know all the genes that contribute to degenerative disc disease, but scientists have discovered several of them. Genes that contribute to degenerative disc disease include those related to collagen, Vitamin D, the extracellular matrix, inflammation, and aggrecan, a molecule that helps keep cartilage hydrated.
While the disorder does run in families, if you have relatives with degenerative disc disease, it is important to focus on your modifiable risk factors. Age and genetics are not modifiable, but smoking, obesity, weak core muscles, poor posture, and excessive sitting are modifiable. If degenerative disc disease runs in your family, avoid nicotine exposure of all types; get plenty of physical exercise, including core muscle strengthening exercises; and maintain a healthy weight. Also note that high-impact sports or occupations that involve heavy manual labor can increase the risk of degenerative disc disease. This should factor into your decision about work and leisure activities.
A person’s individual risk of degenerative disc disease is affected by several modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors:
Non-Modifiable Risk Factors for Degenerative Disc Disease
Modifiable Risk Factors for Degenerative Disc Disease
Symptoms of degenerative disc disease vary from person to person, but the most common DDD symptoms to look out for include:
Red flag symptoms are signs and symptoms that indicate severe problem that needs immediate medical attention. Red flag signs and symptoms of DDD are:
While DDD is hereditary, controlling modifiable risk factors can reduce your risk of the disorder. If you have a family member who has had degenerative disc disease, a “slipped” or ruptured disk, spinal fusion or artificial disc replacement, consider making an appointment with a spine surgeon to review your personal risk of DDD and find ways to reduce further spine troubles. If you think you may have DDD, talk with a spine surgeon. Spine surgeons can perform a comprehensive evaluation and suggest non-surgical or surgical treatments, as appropriate.
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