Degenerative Disc Disease

 

 

 

Degenerative Disc Disease

 

As we age, the spinal discs start to dehydrate (the discs are 80{95f364b8aea3ba4afb976a81c1dcc2e8147daac1866ef443968911255633a999} water at birth! Learn more about spinal discs here). As a result of this loss of water over time, the discs start to stiffen. This means they are less able to adjust to the compression forces of every day activities. Although this is considered a part of the natural ageing process, in some individuals, it can cause pain. 

This is known as Degenerative Disc Disease, and it is one of the most common causes of lower back pain. However it is also the most misunderstood.

That is partly because few medical professionals agree on exactly what a diagnosis of Degenerative Disc Disease means, and also when exactly, it is the cause of back pain. The symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease can be quite varied, and this just makes it even more difficult to diagnose.

Maybe not surprisingly, Degenerative Disc Disease is almost universal in the population. The discs can start to show degenerative changes as early as in our 20’s. Most people will have varying degrees of mild to moderate Degenerative Disc Disease by the time they are in their 30’s. Some are even severe by this age. 

Strangely though, not everyone experiences pain. One person may have crippling pain, whilst someone else may have no pain at all. This is one of the difficulties of knowing when, and how to treat Degenerative Disc Disease.

 

Signs of Degenerative Disc Disease:

Although it varies widely, signs of Degenerative Disc Disease generally follow a pattern.

  • Pain in the midline (not off to one side)
  • Intermittent back pain (flares up from time to time) but generally does not get worse over time.
  • Pain is often worse with weight bearing, and improves with lying down.
  • Pain aggravated by physically demanding activity.
  • Pain aggravated by forward bending, particularly for extending time periods (sitting, working at a bench).

 

The pain from Degenerative Disc Disease is due to a combination of inflammation and instability of the spinal segment (which puts further stress on the surrounding tissues).

As the discs degenerate, they lose water and start to shrink, losing height and the ability to flex and absorb pressure. This process is often sped up as a result of poor posture, sedentary lifestyle, lots of sitting, and incorrect movement patterns. It is even worse if there has been an injury, particularly if a twisting injury has damaged the disc at some point.

The shrinking disc is a telling sign of Degenerative Disc Disease. It is easily visualised on X-rays, where you can see a decrease in the space for the disc (as seen at the white arrow below, compared to a healthy disc at the black arrow).

 

Disc x-ray

 

 

 Treatment options for Degenerative Disc Disease.

Medications such as pain killers and anti-inflammatories can relieve the pain, but do not fix the underlying problem.

Spinal surgery, usually fusion, has unreliable outcomes and a long recovery time. Surgical intervention of any kind is fraught with risks and can lead to further complications down the line. In severe cases this may be the only option, but all other possible avenues should be tried first.

Chiropractic manipulation can increase spinal range of motion, relieve nerve pressure, restore blood flow and reduce muscle tension. It is low risk and has a very good success rate.

Ultrasound and massage can help to restore blood flow and reduce muscle tension.

A specific exercise program designed to progressively stabilise the spine and increase flexibility is often the only way to achieve long-term healing for most sufferers of Degenerative Disc Disease.

Hot and cold therapy, losing weight and quitting smoking are all known to be beneficial as well.

 

Next Page: Bulging Discs

 

 

If you have any questions, or would like to share your own experience, please leave us a comment below.

Also, if you have found this article helpful, please share it so we can help even more people! Thankyou.

 

 

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14 Comments

  1. Hi, thanks for sharing this important information. I have been suffering lower back pains and this article really helps me in considering whether to see a doctor as it could really be a degenarative disc that caused it.. I am not well-versed in technical knowledge about back pain and as such I really appreciate your effort in creating this webpage. I’m sure many people will find this information helpful and necessary for a healthy lifestyle.

    On a side note, what kinds of exercise would you recommend for minimizing back pain from sitting for too long?

    Keep up the good work!

    • HI Gin,

      It really is a good idea to see a health professional if you are suffering with chronic back pain. Even though it is very common, back pain can be effectively managed when you take the appropriate actions.

      Check out the details of my on-line course that I have developed to fix back pain. It includes specific information and exercises to counter the negative effects of prolonged sitting.

      All the best,

      Dr Brad

  2. Hi Dr. Brad

    Really interesting post you have done on degenerative disc disease. That’s one of the problems of aging – the body starts to wear out.
    Thanks for taking the time to explain what is actually going on and how it works.
    From my sporting days I know just how crippling a back pain can be.

    Thanks for sharing

    Mark

    • Hi Mark,

      Yes, unfortunately we are all getting older. And all those old injuries do seem to catch up eventually!

      But I really believe there is quite a bit we can actively do to slow down the ageing process considerably. It all comes down to what some would call ‘old fashioned advice’. Diet and exercise my friend, that is the simple solution! The last part of my course outlines a long term optimal health plan of action, the exact one that my family and I (and thousands of others) follow.

      All the best,
      Dr Brad

  3. I have been suffering with chronic back pain for many years now and have yet to find someone who can tell me definitively what is wrong with my back.

    I have been told that I have mild disc degeneration but they are not prepared to say that is the cause of my pain as I also have a lot of pain in my back muscles. I also have chronic fatigue that began about 2 years ago.

    I did an MRI in June and was told that it was clean. So I am now trying to get a second opinion. Based on your article is would appear that I have Degenerative Disc Disease. I have seen Chiropractors and that has occasionally made the pain worse. Disc decompression also made the pain worse too. I have also had massages but the benefits were not obvious, I have even done acupuncture to no avail too.

    Can you suggest anything?

    • Hi Sheni,

      It sounds like you have been having a tough time.
      From what you have said, it is possible that your spine is unstable, possibly from sitting too much. In this situation, some forms of treatment can actually aggravate your back pain.
      The right exercise program will help to strengthen and stabilise your spine, and should sort it out. Check out the details of my Treat Back Pain Naturally course, it might be just what you need.

      Dr Brad

  4. I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease in my late 30s. Surgery was recommended. A close friend who is a Physician Assistant warned me not to have the surgery. He said in his experience surgery only made back pain worse.

    I took his advice and elected not to have surgery. Instead, I used exercises, nutrition and stretching to keep my back strong. Also, I learned to treat my back with respect and not overload it or torque it. I’m now 58 and my back is pain free.

    I’m confident Dr. Brad knows precisely what needs to be done to alleviate degenerative disc disease.

    Incidentally, my older sister and younger brother both had back surgery in recent years and it made their pain worse.

    • Hi G.C.

      In my experience many people who have had spinal surgery regret it later. However for some it is a life saver. But it definitely seems to be a case that there are no guarantees.

      The thing is, once you have had surgery, you are done. There is no going back, whether the surgery worked, or, as is often the case, it made you worse.

      My belief is that you should always try conservative, natural treatment first, whatever the ailment (unless it is an emergency of course!) Change your diet, sign up for an exercise program, whatever change you have to make. Then trust that your body will return to a state of health, because that is what it is designed to do!

      And hey, if that didn’t work, at least you haven’t done any irrepairable damage, right.

      Dr Brad

  5. This is very interesting. I noticed I’ve been having more backpain when I go for a long drive. Hence, I really do dislike driving, if I can live in a city where access to subway is everywhere, I’d rather sell my car and ride on a subway. I’m not sure if it is because of my age or because of lifting weights for over a decade. So recently I’ve been doing more calisthenic exercises and a lot of stretching instead of lifting heavy weights and it seemed to help not just with back pain but my joint pain overall. what do you think?

    • Hey Joon.

      Yes, absolutely you will feel better and keep your back stronger through appropriate exercises such as callisthenics and stretching.
      The key is consistency, doing a bit every day, and persistence, keep it up for the long term. Good health is an ongoing project, not a destination!

      Dr Brad

  6. This article caught my attention because I am currently suffering from back pain and scoliosis. Although I do not have degenerative disc disease, I may have more back problems as I get older. I am only 19 and have a 50 degree curvature. My breathing is also affected, and was forced to stop playing sports. I currently go to a chiropractor and get weekly massages which helps a lot with the pain.

  7. I was having problems with my back 3 years ago (at 23), and had an MRI done. I remember looking at the picture from the MRI and could see the degeneration of 2 of the discs, to where my bones of my spine were almost touching. They diagnosed it as Mild Degenerative Disk Disease: L3-4 only and Lower Lumbar Radiculitis. They then told me that it is a condition that cannot be cured, that there are ways to help ease the pain and I was doing physical therapy for it .They also said it will lead to arthritis as I age. My insurance changed and I never followed up like I was supposed to and like I said, it’s been 3 years. It is nice to find out more about it though, since it’s been so long since I’ve read anything about the condition.

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