Thumbnail image of: Herniated Disk: Illustration

Degenerative Disk Disease Discharge Information

What is degenerative disk disease?

Disks are small, circular cushions between the bones of the spine (vertebrae). Normally, disks act as shock absorbers to cushion the bones in your spine from each other as you move. As you get older, the disk first develops small tears, then becomes unstable, and later hardens. Degenerative disk disease happens over several years. Complications of degenerative disk disease may include:

  • Herniated disk (also called a ruptured disk): A disk that has bulged out from its proper place when the soft, rubbery center of the disk squeezes out through a weak point in the hard outer layer. It may press on nearby nerves and cause severe pain.
  • Spinal stenosis: A narrowing of the opening in the spine that surrounds the spinal cord and the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord. This puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves and causes pain, numbness, or weakness below the area of pressure.

How can I take care of myself when I go home?

How long it takes to get better depends on your treatment, how well you recover, your overall health, and any complications you may have. To take care of yourself when you go home, you will need to learn how much activity you can do without making your back pain worse.


  • Your provider will give you a list of your medicines when you leave the hospital.
    • Know your medicines. Know what they look like, how much you should take each time, how often you should take them, and why you take each one.
    • Take your medicines exactly as your provider tells you to.
    • Carry a list of your medicines in your wallet or purse. Include any nonprescription medicines and supplements on the list.
  • Your provider may prescribe medicine to:
    • Reduce swelling
    • Treat pain
    • Relax muscles in the back
    • Help you sleep
    • Prevent side effects, such as nausea or constipation, from other treatments
  • If you have had surgery, to care for your incision:
    • Keep your incision clean.
    • If you are told to change the dressing on your incision, wash your hands before changing the dressing and after disposing of the dressing.


  • Follow your provider’s instructions for follow-up appointments.
  • Talk with your provider about any questions or fears you have.
  • Ask questions about any medicine or treatment or information that you do not understand.

Diet, Exercise, and Other Lifestyle Changes

  • Follow the treatment plan your healthcare provider prescribes.
  • Follow activity restrictions, such as not driving or operating machinery, as recommended by your healthcare provider or pharmacist, especially if you are taking pain medicines or muscle relaxants.
  • Exercise as your provider recommends.
  • Practice good posture.
  • Lose weight if you need to and keep a healthy weight.
  • Put a pillow under your knees when you are lying down.
  • Sleep without a pillow under your head.
  • Have your back massaged by a trained person.
  • Use ice or heat to the painful area as recommended.
  • Use traction or a support belt if recommended.

Call emergency medical services or 911 if you have new or worsening:

  • Numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness in one or both legs
  • Trouble with muscle movements, such as moving your legs
  • Changes in bladder and bowel control

If you have any of these symptoms, do not drive yourself.

Call your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening:

  • Back pain
  • Inability to straighten your neck or back without severe pain
  • If you had surgery, signs of infection around your surgical wound. These include:
    • The area around your wound is more red or painful
    • The wound area is very warm to touch
    • You have blood, pus, or other fluid coming from your wound area
    • You have a fever higher than 101.5° F (38.6° C)
    • You have chills or muscle aches
Developed by RelayHealth.
Acute Care Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-02-20
Last reviewed: 2015-01-22
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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