What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative disc disease may become very painful as it progresses. Traditional forms of care tend to focus on medication and surgery. However, chiropractic care is a useful and more natural alternative option. Chiropractic care is generally safer and easier on the patients in situations where surgery is not absolutely necessary.
Degenerative disc disease, or degenerative disc disorder (DDD), is an occurrence where the discs of the spine degenerate, causing the patient a great deal of pain and a degradation in the quality of their daily life. The pain extends beyond the normal aches that are generally associated with aging. This severe discomfort can arise in the lower back, hips, buttocks, and thighs due to the great influence that the spine has on the body. In addition, there may be weakness and tingling in the extremities like the hands, knees, and fingers. Normal actions, such as lifting, twisting, bending, and sitting can cause additional pain. There may even be chronic neck pain, especially if the cervical spine is affected.1
Typically, the discs in the spine do degenerate to some natural extent with age. The discs are what act as normal shock absorption for the spine. And it is their versatility that allows the spine to be flexible. Over time, the discs that degenerate the most are in the lumbar, or lower back, region as well as the cervical, or neck, region.
Certain conditions can be what triggers the occurrence of more chronic pain than what would develop as a result of the normal wear and tear on the body. Osteoarthritis, herniated disc, and spinal stenosis are all conditions that can cause this progression to more severe pain. As individuals age, discs can lose fluid, and they become narrow and less flexible. There may also be cracks or tears in the annulus of the disc (outer layer), forcing the material in the disk (nucleus) out. The disc may, as a result of the repositioning, bulge or rupture.
Who are at Risk?
The people most at risk for these disc problems are:
- those who smoke,
- patients who are obese,
- people who do a lot of repetitive heavy lifting,
- and those who have already suffered an impactful injury, such as falling, that caused the disc to herniate.
Because the spine in these conditions now has less padding, the body creates bone spurs (osteophytes) that try to stabilize the spine. The pain comes as the bone spurs then put pressure on the roots of the spinal nerve.2
Degenerative disc disease is really a “catchall phrase” for most types of structural changes that develop in the shape and integrity of the spine. It is a very common diagnosis for back pain. Many times, spinal changes are normal for aging and do not generally worsen.3 For some people, the pain of DDD is severe and chronic, requiring treatment. Generally, after a medical professional diagnose DDD, the doctor may recommend that the patient try to apply ice or heat to the source of the pain and take acetaminophen and NSAIDs. If there are more serious conditions resulting from the degenerative disc disorder, such as spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, or herniated discs, then physical therapy, stretching, and even surgery might be prescribed.
In surgery, the damaged disc is removed completely. For some people, the bone is then fused permanently, but sometimes an artificial disc is used to replace the removed one. The invasive solution depends on the patients and their physical condition.4 The American Pain Society and American College of Physicians also suggest, in addition to anti-inflammatory medication, that people suffering from DDD also might try antidepressant medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, and chiropractic care. Patients should try to exhaust their more natural, less invasive options before turning to regular medication use or surgery, which carry more risks.5
Chiropractors are specialists in treating DDD and other causes of back pain. They look to see if and how the mechanics of the spine have been disturbed, if the discs are putting pressure on the nerves, and if there are other conditions, such as spinal stenosis. The chiropractor will observe posture, walking, and any other range of motion issues that might indicate injury, spasms, or restricted movement. Some chiropractors will use X-ray or MRI scans.
Treatments will typically include spinal adjustments, flexion-distraction, and perhaps instrument-assisted manipulation. Some instruments are often used on younger patients and on those who are more nervous about the adjustments and require a gentler touch. Trigger point therapy, stretching, and massage are manual therapies a chiropractor may employ. Chiropractors may also use techniques to reduce inflammation, such as electrical stimulation and ultrasound. It is also very likely that the patient’s chiropractor will have recommendations of types of stretches and lifestyle changes that the patient could try at home. Maintenance and strengthening of the physical condition is just as important in between sessions as it is at the chiropractic office.6
2, 4 webmd.com