In order for the spine to function optimally, it has to maintain its natural curvatures and alignment, and spinal discs are an important part of the spine’s overall health and function. The intervertebral discs are often the first spinal structures to deteriorate. Degenerative disc disease can involve a single disc in a single spinal section, or involve multiple sections of the spine: multilevel degenerative disc disease.
The vertebrae (bones of the spine) are stacked on top of one another and separated by intervertebral discs. Degenerative disc disease develops as the intervertebral discs experience degenerative changes; when this occurs at multiple levels of the spine, this is multilevel degenerative disc disease.
Let’s start our discussion of multilevel degenerative disc disease by first taking a look at some basic spinal anatomy.
A healthy spine appears straight when viewed from the front and/or back and takes on a soft ‘S’ shape when viewed from the sides; this is due to the spine’s natural and healthy curves that make it stronger, more flexible, and better able to absorb and distribute mechanical stress.
In order for the spine to function optimally, these natural curves have to be maintained, and the spinal discs are an integral part of that.
The vertebrae (bones of the spine) are rectangular in shape and stacked on top of one another in a straight and neutral alignment; the vertebrae are separated by intervertebral discs.
The discs are made up of a tough outer layer (annulus) and a soft gel-like interior (nucleus).
The discs consist of water, collagen fibers, and proteoglycans, and the durable outer annulus facilitates the spine’s rotational stability and helps counteract compression.
The annulus and nucleus work together to distribute weight and stress from one vertebral body to another.
As mentioned, the discs are generally the first spinal structures to experience degenerative changes, and an important characteristic of the spinal discs is that they are the largest structures of the body to not have their own vascular supply; this means there is no direct path into, and out of, the discs for the transport/absorption of important nutrients needed for cellular repair.
Through a series of osmotic processes, the discs can absorb nutrients needed from their surroundings, which is why movement is so important because it increases hydration/circulation around the spine, making these nutrients more available for the discs to absorb.
Once one or more spinal discs have started to deteriorate, it’s difficult to reverse these changes, which is why degenerative disc disease is so prevalent in aging adults.
So now that we have discussed some basic spinal anatomy, including the structure and function of the discs, let’s move on to the causes of multilevel degenerative disc disease.
There are three main sections of the spine: cervical (neck), thoracic (middle/upper back), and lumbar (lower back).
In some cases, degenerative disc disease involves a single disc in a single section, but more often, multiple discs are involved at different levels of the spine.
While there is a certain degree of spinal degeneration expected with age, other factors that can increase degenerative changes include leading a sedentary lifestyle, carrying excess weight, chronic poor posture, excessive alcohol consumption, and repeatedly lifting heavy objects incorrectly and straining the spine.
Multilevel degenerative disc disease is a common spinal condition for adults 40+ years of age, and natural age-related degenerative changes are the most common cause of multilevel degenerative disc disease.
The symptoms of multilevel degenerative disc disease will vary based on important patient/condition variables such as age and overall health, the location of the spinal disc degeneration, and condition severity.
Some patients with mild multilevel degenerative disc disease don’t experience noticeable symptoms at all, until affected discs degenerate to the point where they lose shape, become desiccated, and nearby spinal nerves become compressed/impinged as a result.
When there is a degree of nerve involvement, symptoms can include:
So if a diagnosis of multilevel degenerative disc disease is given, how is it treated?
Multilevel Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment
As mentioned, once the discs of the spine start to deteriorate, the process of reversing damage is limited and lengthy, so prevention is important.
While a certain degree of spinal degeneration is expected with age, lifestyle factors can increase, or decrease, these effects over time.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important because it means the joints of the spine don’t have excess weight to support, exposing them to constant strain.
Maintaining a healthy activity level is key as the very design of the spine is based on movement, and it’s through movement that the discs of the spine can maintain their fluid levels and absorb needed nutrients from their surroundings.
Chronic poor posture can be corrected so the spine is not exposed to adverse spinal tension that, over time, can lead to increased spinal degeneration.
Alcohol consumption and smoking are also negative lifestyle choices that, over time, can decrease the body’s fluid levels and contribute to disc desiccation (excessive fluid loss).
For those with jobs that involve repeatedly lifting heavy objects, doing so incorrectly exposes the spine to excess strain, uneven distribution of mechanical stress, and puts the spine at risk of injury.
With keeping these factors in mind, leading a spine-friendly lifestyle can decrease spinal degeneration and keep the spine as healthy, strong, and flexible for as long as possible.
For those already diagnosed with multilevel degenerative disc disease, there are a number of treatment options available, and here at the Scoliosis Reduction Center, I specialize in nonsurgical treatment for a variety of spinal conditions, multilevel degenerative disc disease included.
Once the underlying cause of the disc degeneration is determined, a customized treatment plan can be crafted.
While disc damage can’t be fully reversed, a certain degree of disc function can be restored, but just as the process of disc degeneration takes place slowly over years, the process of restoration is also lengthy.
Through a conservative chiropractic-centered treatment approach, I can customize effective treatment plans with the goal of restoring disc function, preventing further damage, and increasing core strength so the spinal muscles can optimally support the spine.
Through condition-specific chiropractic care, I can use a variety of techniques, such as gentle manual adjustments, to alter the position of adjacent vertebrae, which affects the shape and height of the disc in between.
Through physical therapy and condition-specific exercises/stretches, I can increase core strength so the spine is optimally supported and stabilized by its surrounding muscles, taking pressure off the discs, circulation is improved, and the spine, and its surroundings, are kept as strong, loose, and flexible as possible.
In addition, lifestyle guidance is another component of treatment here at the Center, as diet and exercise can have a big impact on the spine’s overall health and function.
While these disciplines are unlikely to fully reverse all disc degeneration in all spinal sections, they can go a long way in terms of restrengthening and restabilizing the spine, while preventing further disc breakdown.
The spine is a complex structure that provides the body with stability, enables flexible movement, and helps to absorb/distribute stress from impact and movement.
In addition, the spine works in tandem with the brain to form the body’s central nervous system (CNS), which is why spinal conditions can cause a myriad of symptoms felt throughout the body.
The bones of the spine are separated by intervertebral discs, and these discs are tough and durable on the outside, and soft and malleable on the inside.
The discs combine forces to facilitate range of motion, provide the spine with structure as adjacent vertebrae attach to the disc in between, provide cushioning between adjacent vertebrae to prevent friction during movement, and act as the spine’s shock absorbers.
With the above roles in mind, it’s clear how important the spine’s discs are in maintaining overall spinal health and function.
Once a disc starts to degenerate and cause symptoms, this is known as degenerative disc disease, and if multiple discs are deteriorating in different spinal sections, this is known as multilevel degenerative disc disease.
The most common cause of multilevel degenerative disc disease is natural age-related spinal degeneration, and the cumulative effect of negative lifestyle choices can also play a role, in addition to the presence of other spinal conditions.
When it comes to the treatment of multilevel degenerative disc disease, here at the Scoliosis Reduction Center, treatment plans are guided by the condition’s underlying cause and integrate multiple different forms of treatment for the best results.