Degenerative disc disease may be very painful. Traditional care tends to focus on medication and surgery; however, chiropractic care is a useful and more natural alternative option.
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative disc disease or degenerative disc disorder (DDD), is when discs of the spine degenerate, causing a great deal of pain. The pain extends beyond the normal aches associated with aging, and this severe discomfort can arise in the lower back, hips, buttocks, and thighs. In addition, there may be weakness and tingling in 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, discs in the spine do degenerate with age. The discs are “shock absorbers for the spine”, and allow it to be flexible. Over time, the discs that degenerate the most are in the lumbar region (lower back) and cervical region (neck). Certain conditions can trigger more chronicpain than the normal wear and tear on the body. Osteoarthritis, herniated disc, and spinal stenosis are all conditions that can cause 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, bulge or rupture. The people most at risk for these disc problems are smokers, the obese, people who do a lot of heavy lifting, and those who have had an injury (i.e., falling) that caused a herniated disc. Because the spine now has less padding, the body creates bone spurs (osteophytes) that try to stabilize the spine. The pain comes as the bone spurs “put pressure on the spinal nerve roots”.2
Degenerative disc disease is really a “catchall phrase” for “structural changes of the spine”, and it is a very common diagnosis for back pain. Many times, spinal changes are normal for aging and don’t generally worsen.3 For some people, the pain of DDD is severe and chronic, requiring treatment. Generally, after DDD is diagnosed, doctors may recommend ice or heat, 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. For some people, the bone is then fused permanently, but sometimes an artificial disc is used to replace the removed one.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 also try antidepressant medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, and chiropractic care.5
Chiropractors are specialists in treating DDD and back pain. They look to see if the spine mechanics are 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. 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.6