What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Millions of Americans suffer acute or chronic pain due to strains, sprains, or subluxation of the spine and other joints, but health care practitioners agree that some of the most debilitating pain is created by the effects of degenerative disc disease (DDD). When the intervertebral discs in the spine are injured, abraded, or compressed, the nerves and bones they are meant to cushion can be damaged or inflamed, causing pain that many sufferers find incapacitating. While many degenerative disc disease patients turn to pain medication to ease their symptoms, others report that chiropractic treatment not only helps alleviate the pain, but also helps the damaged tissues heal by removing some of the unnatural pressure on individual discs.

Like other joints in the body, each vertebral segment is a joint that has cartilage in it. In between the vertebral body and the disc space is a layer of cartilage, which is known as the cartilaginous end plate. The discs are like cartilaginous, gel-filled cushions between the spinal vertebrae, maintaining the correct amount of space between the bones to allow the individual vertebra in the spine to move freely, and stop pressure from the bones from pinching or crushing the nerve bundles (called ganglia) emanating from within the spinal column and exiting in the spaces between the vertebrae to enervate the organs and other body tissues. Alongside muscle spasms, pinched or smashed ganglia are the main cause of pain that radiates from the back to other areas of the body. For example, disc degeneration in the lower, or lumbar, spine can cause shooting nerve pain in the bottom, hips and down one or both legs, and even pain, tingling, and numbness in the shin, calf, feet and toes. Thoracic, or mid-back, disc degeneration can cause pain in the back, chest and abdomen, and potentially affect nerve function in the body’s core and upper extremities. Cervical disc degeneration, which effects the upper back and neck, can cause muscle spasms and pain in the neck and shoulders, resulting in headaches, tingling, numbness, stiffness, or shooting pain in the patient’s head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.

Muscle spasms are the body’s attempt to take pressure off the affected discs; basically, it is the spine’s self-preservation mechanism. The muscles spasm in an attempt to eliminate subluxation, realign the spine, and allow the discs to relax back into their correct position. Unfortunately, these spasms often do not help realign the vertebrae, instead causing throbbing, sharp, or stabbing pain, tingling, and numbness in the back, neck, and extremities, often decreasing the patient’s range of motion and creating a stiff, unnatural posture.

Inflammation and swelling within the intervertebral space is another symptom of disc degeneration, which can occur with normal activity over time, or quickly due to an injury, such as a car accident or fall.

When discs are squeezed out of proportion, worn down, compressed, or herniated, “the proteins contained within the disc space can cause a lot of inflammation, and as a general rule, inflammation will cause pain,” reports spine-health.com. “In the lumbar disc space, the low-back pain can radiate into the hips. The associated pain can also travel down the back of the leg (also called sciatica, or radiculopathy), and possibly into the foot and toes. In the cervical disc space, the neck pain may be local, or may radiate into the arm, shoulder and possibly into the hand.”

When the outer cartilaginous rings of the discs wear down or rupture, the spinal bones can move in unnatural ways, causing muscle spasms and pain throughout the whole spine, or in specific intervertebral spaces where a disc is damaged or herniated.

Spine Health, a doctor-edited web site specializing in information for people suffering from back pain and injury, reports that degenerative disc disease has unique symptoms that differentiate it from other types of back pain. “There are several symptoms that are fairly consistent for people with lower-back pain or neck pain from degenerative disc disease, including: Pain that is usually related to activity and will flare up at times but then return to a low-grade pain level, or the pain will go away entirely. The amount of chronic pain – referred to as the patient’s baseline level of pain – is quite variable between individuals, and can range from almost no pain/just a nagging level of irritation, to severe and disabling pain. Severe episodes of back or neck pain can generally last from a few days to a few months before returning to the individual’s baseline level of chronic pain. Chronic pain that is completely disabling from degenerative disc disease does happen in some cases, but is relatively rare.”

Degenerative disc disease most commonly occurs in the cervical spine (neck) or the lumbar spine (lower back), as these areas of the spine are most susceptible to wear and tear because they have the most motion.

According to Spine Health, the amount of pain does not necessarily equate to the amount of damage in the spine. Patients with severe pain may not have severe damage to their spine, and most importantly, may not need surgery.

A chiropractor pointing to a spinal disc

What are The Best Treatment Options for Degenerative Disc Disease?

Although surgery can be an option for some people with advanced degenerative disc problems, doctors consistently recommend that patients start with less-invasive treatments like regular chiropractic care, massage, and exercise/physical therapy.

Spine Health reports that there are three main goals for treatment: pain control, exercise and rehabilitation, and lifestyle modifications. As the pain is normally caused by instability and inflammation, any pain control regimen should focus on these. Once the pain is under control, the exercise and rehabilitation program can begin.

Although osteopathic doctors often recommend surgery to “correct” the problems caused by degenerated discs, they admit the inherent dangers that accompany surgical intervention. Unfortunately, many patients experience lifelong physical limitations – like the inability to lift more than 10 pounds – and report that the surgery stabilized their spine but did not alleviate the pain.

Chiropractic care can be a great alternative to surgery. In addition to the proven benefits of chiropractic care in reducing pain and increasing mobility in patients suffering from disc degeneration disorder, exercise can play an important role in rehabilitation.

Chiropractors will consider three main issues when determining the best course of treatment for degenerative disc disease: degeneration in the spinal joints that may be disturbing the mechanics of the spine; thinning and degenerative discs that might be bulging and putting pressure on spinal nerves; and spinal stenosis, which can cause back pain and leg pain.

Chiropractors will test patients’ range of motion, and look at how they walk, and examine their overall posture. These observations help the doctor understand each patient’s unique body mechanics, and see how their spine moves. Chiropractors also may prescribe imaging such as x-rays to examine damage, changes or abnormalities in the spine and soft tissue.

“The goal of chiropractic care for DDD is to improve joint mechanics by improving spinal motion and reducing inflammation. The chiropractor may also work on improving the function of the intervertebral discs. To help treat your DDD symptoms, your chiropractor may use spinal manipulation (also called spinal adjustment),” Julie Gentile writes in Spine Universe.

There are multiple types of spinal manipulation. Some common ones are specific spinal manipulation, flexion-distraction technique, instrument-assisted manipulation, trigger-point therapy, manual joint stretching and resistance techniques, instrument-assisted soft-tissue therapy, therapeutic massage, interferential electrical stimulation, and ultrasound. All of these chiropractic treatment options are aimed at reducing pain and inflammation, and increasing spinal flexibility and overall patient mobility.  

If you are suffering from degenerative disc disease in Austin, give Dr. Moore a call today at  (512) 459-5523. The staff at Moore Chiropractic Health Care Center of Austin will work with you to alleviate the pain, and work out a treatment and home exercise plan customized for you. Don’t live with the pain any longer.

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LINKS: https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/degenerative-disc-disease/pain-degenerative-disc-disease

https://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/degenerative-disc/chiropractic-care-degenerative-disc-disease