The spine’s intervertebral discs help give it structure, added strength, flexibility, cushioning between the vertebrae (bones of the spine), and act as the body’s shock absorbers. Once a disc starts to deteriorate, it can impact the spine’s overall health and function in different ways; keep reading to find out how, plus effective degenerative disc disease treatment options.
There are a number of treatment options for degenerative disc disease, both for short-term pain relief and long-term rehabilitation. When a disc has deteriorated, there is no reversing it, but treatment can work towards disc regeneration and improving the health of nearby related structures.
Let’s start our discussion of degenerative disc disease and related treatment options by first exploring the discs’ structure and the spine itself.
If a healthy spine was viewed from the side, it would have a soft ‘S’ shape, and when viewed from the front and/or back, it would appear straight; this is because the spine has natural and healthy curvatures.
A healthy spine’s natural curvatures make it stronger, more flexible, and better able to absorb and distribute mechanical stress.
So, what happens when the spine loses one or more of its healthy curvatures and develops unhealthy ones?
There are a number of spinal conditions that can affect the spine’s ability to maintain its natural and healthy curvatures; some common ones are scoliosis, kyphosis, lordosis, and degenerative disc disease.
As the spine’s intervertebral discs provide it with structure by sitting between adjacent vertebrae and giving them something to attach to, when a disc experiences degenerative changes, it can shift the spine’s positioning and cause it to become misaligned.
A misaligned spine with disc problems can also lead to developing several other spinal conditions/issues.
There are three main spinal sections: cervical (neck), thoracic (middle/upper back), and lumbar (lower back). Degenerative disc disease can develop anywhere along the spine but most commonly affects the neck and lower back.
Now that we have touched on some basic spinal anatomy, let’s explore the structure of the spine’s intervertebral discs.
The spine’s intervertebral discs have two main parts: a soft gel-like interior, known as the nucleus pulposus, and a tough and durable outer layer, known as the annulus fibrosus.
The inner portion of a disc, the nucleus pulposus, contains water, proteoglycans, and collagen (the glue that holds structures of the body together), giving the spine added flexibility.
The outer portion, the annulus fibrosus, is a tough layered structure that encases the nucleus within. It’s the annulus that gives the spine its rotational stability and helps counteract compression.
The annulus contains water and elastic collagen fibers like the nucleus, although the nucleus contains more water. Together, the nucleus and annulus distribute stress and weight from one vertebra to another.
It’s important to understand that the spine’s intervertebral discs are the largest structures within the body that don’t have their own vascular supply, which is why once deterioration has started, there is little that can be done to reverse it.
Through osmosis, each disc absorbs needed nutrients, and through regular movement, the discs regenerate their hydration levels, which is why a sedentary lifestyle can be so detrimental to spinal health and function.
So now that we have a basic understanding of how intervertebral discs help preserve the spine’s health and function let’s talk about degenerative disc disease, including causes, prevention, and treatment options.
Contrary to what the name suggests, degenerative disc disease (DDD) is not a disease; instead, the name refers to the process of disc degeneration that can take place over time.
The term degenerative disc disease also refers to its common symptoms of lower back and neck pain that develops due to the wear and tear experienced by one or more of the spine’s intervertebral discs.
As a disc deteriorates, it can lose height and hydration. As the discs don’t have their own vascular supply, it’s difficult for them to replenish once the degenerative process has started.
If a disc starts to lose hydration (disc desiccation), it can decrease in size, causing the spine’s vertebrae to shift out of alignment with the rest of the spine, which can disrupt the spine’s overall biomechanics.
So what types of causes are associated with the development of degenerative disc disease?
Degenerative disc disease is caused by the drying out of a disc. At birth, the spine’s discs are 80-percent water, but over time, as we age, that hydration level changes, and certain lifestyle choices can speed up the process.
If a disc is drying out, it tends to lose height and doesn’t absorb/distribute shock from impact as effectively.
While most people will experience natural spinal degeneration as part of aging, this doesn’t mean everyone will end up with degenerative disc disease, and this is where many other factors come into play.
If a person is carrying excess weight, this puts added weight and uneven pressure on the body’s joints, including the spine. This can make the spine’s discs wear out faster; in addition, someone who leads a sedentary life will also not be providing their spine with enough movement to help maintain the hydration level of the discs.
If a person is repeatedly lifting heavy objects incorrectly (lifting with the back, instead of the legs), this repeated strain can negatively impact the spinal discs.
Daily sports and activities can also play a role in the spine’s health; sports that involve repeated jarring impact can cause compression of the spine and lead to tears in a disc’s outer core.
In addition, injuries and trauma experienced by the spine, such as in a fall or car accident, can also cause disc damage and instability. The presence of other spinal conditions like scoliosis or osteoporosis can also impact the health of the intervertebral discs.
So while most people over the age of 60 are likely to experience some form of spinal degeneration, not everyone will develop degenerative disc disease and related back pain, which leads us to the next topic: degenerative disc disease symptoms.
As mentioned, the most common spinal sections to experience significant disc degeneration and cause related pain are the cervical and lumbar sections, which is why degenerative disc disease is the most common cause of lower back and neck pain.
While every case is different and will produce its own unique set of symptoms, common symptoms of degenerative disc disease can include:
Typically, degenerative disc disease causes low-level chronic pain with flare-ups of increasing pain.
While many wonder, “Can you live a normal life with degenerative disc disease?” although the answer is yes, quality of life will depend on the level of symptoms experienced.
As we discuss symptoms of degenerative disc disease and life with the condition, let’s address another common condition-related topic: how to prevent it from getting worse.
When a person is diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, due to the nature of the condition and the fact that spinal degeneration has reached the point of causing noticeable symptoms, preventing further progression is key.
No one wants to experience escalating symptoms, especially if that symptom is back pain. When it comes to preventing degenerative disc disease from getting worse, we are talking about ways to preserve the health of the discs and their surroundings.
While no one can fully reverse disc deterioration, certain steps can be taken to improve their overall health, and at the very least, work towards preventing further disc damage.
Causation is an important factor when it comes to preventing a spinal condition from worsening. If the cause is a spinal injury, the injury itself has to be addressed, and not just its symptoms.
If the cause is obesity and a lack of movement, these are lifestyle choices that can be changed. While making healthier choices won’t undo the damage done to the spine over the years, it can improve the health of its individual parts, including the intervertebral discs.
If another spinal condition has compromised the spine’s health to the point that it affects the discs, the underlying spinal condition causing the damage has to be the guiding force of treatment.
For example, if scoliosis (an abnormal sideways spinal curvature with rotation) has caused the spine to become misaligned, the condition has exposed the discs to uneven pressure and compression.
In cases where a misaligned spine causes degenerative disc disease, the uneven weight-bearing issues due to the misalignment have to be addressed, which means that the scoliosis has to be treated proactively and impacted on a structural level to reduce some of the uneven forces the spinal discs are being exposed to.
So let’s move on to talk about treatment options specifically and how proactive treatment might not be able to reverse spinal-disc damage but can make improvements by impacting the health of the discs’ surroundings: structures, muscles, ligaments, and nerves.
Here at the Scoliosis Reduction Center, I have experience treating patients of all ages, and with a wide range of spinal conditions, degenerative disc disease included.
As mentioned, there is a huge difference between treating a condition’s symptoms or addressing its underlying cause.
Treating a patient’s degenerative disc disease symptoms will do nothing to prevent the condition’s further progression, even if it provides short-term pain relief. However, addressing the condition’s underlying cause has the potential to help the damaged discs rejuvenate themselves as much as possible and prevent further progression.
When it comes to the conservative chiropractic-centered treatment approach I offer patients of the Center, one of the treatment goals is to achieve positive results through disciplines that preserve the spine’s overall health and function without turning to invasive surgical procedures.
While no treatment results are ever guaranteed, improvements can always be worked towards, and in the context of degenerative disc disease, we are most often dealing with older adults, for whom surgery becomes more complicated and risky with increasing age.
So, what can be done to ease the symptoms of degenerative disc disease, preserve the health of the affected discs, and prevent the condition from increasing in severity?
As mentioned, it’s common to treat degenerative disc disease by treating its symptoms, but this is simply because it’s easier, offers quick results, and is less complex.
Treating symptoms of degenerative disc disease can include medications, disc injections, and surgery. Still, medication only provides short-term relief, and spinal surgery can be costly, invasive, and carry some risky side effects and potential complications.
While numerous things can be done to reduce a person’s degenerative disc disease symptoms, this should not be the main focus of treatment; however, some medical professionals would continue solely treating symptoms because addressing a symptom’s underlying cause is a more lengthy and complex process.
In order for long-term rehabilitation to take place, proactive treatment that addresses the condition’s underlying cause has to be applied.
The best way for those looking for degenerative disc disease treatment with the potential to achieve some degree of reversal is to treat its underlying cause.
It’s important to understand that just as the process of spinal deterioration is slow and takes place over time, so too is the process of working towards reversing some of those effects; there is no quick fix when it comes to restoring spinal-disc function that has been slowly lost over time.
If a patient’s degenerative disc disease is caused by the presence of another spinal condition that has impacted the health and function of the spine, I would first address the underlying condition that led to its development. By doing so, direct or indirect effects felt by the discs are addressed throughout the treatment process.
If a patient’s degenerative disc disease is simply caused by the degenerative effects of aging, I can focus directly on the discs themselves and their nearby structures and surroundings.
In general, I find achieving the best treatment results for a number of spinal conditions is done through an integrative approach that combines different treatment disciplines for a truly customized approach.
Most spinal conditions, degenerative disc disease included, are highly variable, meaning they vary greatly from one person to the next, particularly in terms of condition severity and experienced symptoms.
Customizing treatment plans is essential in terms of addressing key patient/condition characteristics. The more specific a treatment plan is, the more specific results tend to be.
I rely on a number of different forms of treatment, including chiropractic care and physical therapy, to work towards improving the health of the spinal discs and their surroundings.
Manual manipulation through chiropractic care can be highly effective not just for pain relief, but also for reducing tension in important muscles and joints.
Focused and precise spine adjustments involve applying targeted pressure and force to counteract tension and compression experienced by the spine and its surrounding muscles, ligaments, and nerves.
Condition-specific chiropractic care can also impact the spine on a structural level by adjusting the positioning of the vertebrae, and this can help relieve some of the pressure on the discs that sit between the vertebrae, not to mention surrounding muscles ligaments, and nerves.
Physical therapy can be highly effective at promoting healthy mobility in the spine, and a number of condition-specific custom-prescribed stretches can help keep the muscles of the back, hips, and pelvis as loose and flexible as possible; this helps to alleviate some of the pressure on the spine and its discs.
Keeping the spine and its surroundings as loose as possible also alleviates pain caused by tight and inflexible joints and muscles.
Strengthening exercises can help build up the abdominal and lower-back muscles, which can help the body maintain a healthy posture and provide the spine with optimal support and stabilization.
Strengthening exercises can include dynamic lumbar stabilization, a customized physical therapy program, and/or a variety of exercises, including the pelvic tilt, lower-trunk rotation, etc.
Low-Impact Aerobic Exercise
As a contributing factor to the development of degenerative disc disease can include lifestyle choices such as obesity and not maintaining a healthy activity level, low-impact aerobic exercise can be an important component of an effective treatment plan.
Low-impact exercise can elevate the heart rate, which improves circulation. As we know that good circulation is important for delivering/transporting nutrients and oxygen throughout the body, including the body’s tissues, this can help preserve the health of the spinal discs: particularly important as they don’t have their own vascular supply.
Low-impact exercise can help preserve the spine’s overall health and function while being gentle and not exposing it to jarring motions, uneven forces, or strain.
Some good low-impact exercises include walking, stationary biking, swimming and water aerobics.
Heat and Ice
Hot and cold therapy have long been used to help with many spinal conditions.
Applying heat can improve circulation, which not only helps with removing waste and delivering nutrients but can also help reduce muscle spasms, tension and improve mobility.
Ice can also be effective at reducing inflammation and numbing pain. I often recommend that my degenerative disc disease patients apply heat prior to exercising to relax muscles and to switch to applying ice after exercise to minimize potential inflammation.
In general, physical therapy programs and general treatment plans for degenerative disc disease have to be designed on a case-by-case basis to address a patient’s overall health, pain level, and ability.
I also work closely with my patients to find out which, if any, aspects of their lifestyle are problematic for spinal health and provide guidance on any adjustments that should be made.
If a person has an occupation, for example, that involves repeatedly lifting heavy objects, I can educate them on the importance of lifting with the legs, rather than the back, and can also prescribe the wearing of a back brace during periods of heavy lifting; these strategies can help prevent overuse injuries and related condition flare-ups.
When it comes to overall health and wellness, the spine is an important factor.
Anyone who has suffered from back pain knows how debilitating it can be. While positive preventIive steps can be taken to preserve spinal health, aging can cause natural spinal deterioration that occurs over time.
The spine’s intervertebral discs perform many important roles: providing the spine with structure, cushioning between adjacent vertebrae, and helping to absorb/distribute mechanical stress that’s incurred during movement and impact.
The discs of the spine are generally the first spinal structures to show the effects of deterioration, which can involve disc desiccation.
When a spinal disc becomes dehydrated, it loses height, and as the bones of the spine attach to the discs, if the discs move or decrease in size, it can change a vertebra’s position, causing the spine to become misaligned: disrupting the biomechanics of the entire spine.
Whether a patient’s degenerative disc disease is caused by the natural effects of aging, the cumulative effect of negative lifestyle choices, injury, or another spinal condition, being proactive with treatment is key to preventing further progression and the development of additional development spinal conditions.
When it comes to effective degenerative disc disease treatment options, here at the Scoliosis Reduction Center, I offer an integrative approach that combines different treatment disciplines such as chiropractic care, condition-specific stretches, and custom-prescribed exercises for the best possible results.