One of the most common causes of low back and neck pain is degenerative disc disease, and despite its name, it’s not a disease, but natural occurrence caused by aging.

What is Disc Degeneration?

Disc degeneration or degenerative disc disease is more a condition, than a disease. It is age-related condition where normal changes in discs of the spine cause pain. Nearly everyone’s spinal discs show signs of degenerative changes as the person ages, but not everyone will have disc degeneration disease.

Spinal discs are protective discs (cartilage pillows) positioned between vertebrae, contribute to the flexibility and movement of the spine. They act as shock absorbers reducing the stress during walking, running, jumping… As person gets older, they get older too, which leads to their breaking down. And over the time almost everyone would have damaged spinal discs, but not everyone would have symptoms, that’s because the disc itself has a little innervation, and pain usually occurs when other structures are affected.

Why does it occur?

 Degenerative disc disease involves natural wear and tear of intervertebral discs. As person age, the cartilage in these discs starts to degrade. This leads to decreasing of their water and protein content. As the discs start to shrink, the space between the vertebrae is reducing and that causes instability in the surrounding muscles, ligaments, and joints.

Also the stress of everyday activities and minor injuries over the years can cause tiny tears in the outer wall of spinal disc, which the nerves are positioned and any tears near the nerves can become painful. If the wall breaks down, the disc’s soft core may push through the cracks. The disc may bulge, or slip out of place, leading to slipped or herniated disc and it can affect nearby nerves.

Risk factors for Disc Degeneration

Although disc degeneration is an age-related condition, there are many other factors that have big impact on developing this condition. Many of them are often ignored by population. These include:

  • Obesity
  • Lack of sporting and physical activity
  • Prolonged sitting and/or pure posture
  • Frequent heavy lifting
  • Traumatic injury
  • Weak muscles
  • Excessive strain on the back caused by sports
  • Labor-intensive  jobs
  • Smoking (causes spinal discs to dry out, making them more likely to breakdown)
  • Family history and genetics

What are the symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease?

Symptoms of this condition vary depending on the location and severity of the damaged disc. Some people with this condition may not experience any symptoms, while others may have severe pain as well as neurological issues. 

Symptoms usually occur when there is irritation of a nerve root, instability in the spine or muscle tension in the area. Most cases of degenerative disc disease are manifested with low-grade, continuous and tolerable back or neck pain that occasionally may intensify, for a few or more days, potentially to disabling pain.

Common characteristics of the pain are:

  • It’s located in neck, arms, shoulders, hands, lower back, buttocks or upper thighs
  • Comes and goes
  • It’s worsening when sitting, bending, lifting
  • It’s getting better when moving and walking or in certain positions
  • Radiating sharp, stabbing, or hot pain

Other symptoms include numbness and tingling in arms and legs, depending of disc location, muscle weakness, muscle tension or muscle spasms, feeling a sudden instability during quick movements.

How is it diagnosed?

Diagnosis of degenerative disc disease is quite simple. It is based on a medical history and physical examination. The doctor will ask about the symptoms and the circumstances when the pain started, whether there is numbness or tingling, also about any injures falls or accidents.

Sometimes X-ray, MRI or CT can be ordered, to gather information about the state of the discs and spinal nerves. They can show the damage of the disc, but alone (without symptoms) can’t confirm the diagnosis.

The doctor may also test for other conditions, such as a tumor or other kinds of damage, to ensure a correct diagnosis.

Is there a treatment?

Yes. Actually there are multiple treatment options and treatment plan will most likely include a combination of treatments, such as physical therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes. The goals of the treatment are primarily to reduce the pain and prevent pain flare-ups as much as possible. 

Physical therapy and exercise are an important part of degenerative disc disease treatment plan. Some specific exercises like walking and gentle stretches can help manage the symptoms.

Alternative treatments include acupuncture, biofeedback and herbal remedies. And although they can help to cope with the pain, they may interact with other treatments for degenerative disc disease, so consultation with doctor is a must before starting with these treatments.

Chiropractor can help returning the motion in the spine, as well as decrease the pain. There are numerous chiropractic techniques and one of the most used is spinal adjustment.

Medications like NSAIDs, anti-depressants, acetaminophen and muscle relaxants are used to manage the pain and inflammation.

Surgery is the last option and most patients won’t ever need it. Indications for surgery arise when none of the previous options work and neural symptoms are present.

Now let’s talk more about natural treatments

Alongside the conventional method listed before, there are numerous natural ways to cope with the symptoms of degenerative disc disease. Some of these include lifestyle changes and increased physical activity, chiropractic care or acupuncture. Let’s talk it through.

Big impact on developing this condition, also on easing the symptoms has the lifestyle. So when dealing with degenerative disc disease you must make some, sometimes, lifestyle changes. These include:

  • Losing weight – because the more obese is the person, the bigger is the pressure on the spinal discs, and that makes symptoms even worse.
  • Correcting the posture – learning healthier ways of sitting, standing, lifting objects and sleeping can help ease back pain.
  • Exercise – it’s very important because it’s improving movement and flexion, it’s boosting circulation, it’s lowering inflammation and as stated before, it’s making person feel less pain. Exercise doesn’t always mean just walking. You can choose whichever sport or physical activity you like and is good for you. For example, this can be walking, fast walking, running, swimming, stretching, yoga, specific exercises for strengthening the muscles, etc.
  • Hydrotherapy or water exercise is also a good idea, because it improves movement and strengthens muscles with less effort.

Researchers suggests that a poor diet might have bad impact not just on the general healthy, but on the joints too. So picking the right diet is very important. Some of the most important nutrients for spine health are:

  • Calcium – found in black beans, dairy products, black strap molasses, dark leafy greens like kale and spinach, salmon, tofu, sardines and almonds. Prevent the loss of bone mass during the aging process that can lead to vertebral fractures.
  • Vitamin C – found in citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, potatoes and peppers.  Helps to develop.
  • Iron – found in meat products, fish, poultry, legumes and green leafy vegetables.  Necessary for cells to receive oxygen and also helps with producing myoglobin for muscles necessary to support the spine.
  • Vitamin A – found in cow and chicken liver, dairy products, orange colored fruit and veggies such as cantaloupe, carrots and sweet potatoes and greens. It’s an anti-oxidant that boosts the immune system, aids in the body’s efficient use of protein and helps the body repair damaged tissue and form bone in the back.

For relieving the pain, you can turn to plenty natural painkillers. Here are some of them:

  • Spicy foods like cayenne pepper and wasabi
  • Peppermint oil or peppermint-lavender combo
  • Epsom salt
  • Bone broth
  • Cannabis oil
  • Ginger tea
  • Boswellia extract
  • Turmeric
  • White willow bark
  • Devil’s claw

Other methods that can relieve the pain are putting a heating pad under the painful part, changing sleep positions, getting regular massages, taking a log and hot bath, and laughing as much as possible. It’s been suggested that acupuncture needles cause your body to release certain neurochemicals, such as endorphins or serotonin, and they help in the healing process.

Chiropractic care can help you with easing the symptoms of degenerative disc disease, so it is important to consult one if you have this problem. For this condition, the chiropractor most likely will use spinal manipulation or spinal adjustment, like specific spinal manipulation, flexion-distraction technique and instrument-assisted manipulation. Examples for manual therapy techniques are trigger point therapy, manual joint stretching and resistance technique, and therapeutic massage. And in addition to spinal manipulation and manual therapy techniques, the chiropractor may also use other types of therapies like ultrasound and interferential electric stimulation. 

Acupuncture can also help. It is an ancient Chinese method used to treat the pain using very fine needles and no medication. It’s been suggested that acupuncture needles cause your body to release certain neurochemicals, such as endorphins or serotonin, and they help in the healing process.

In the end, don’t forget that it is easier to prevent, than to treat. So give your spine the attention it needs.

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