Chiropractic Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease

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What is degenerative disc disease?

There is normal aging in the protective discs that cushion the spine. And then there is degenerative disc disease.  Most people will experience some normal age-related wear and tear to their spinal discs. Others will go on to develop degenerative disc disease. The painfully debilitating condition will require ongoing treatment.

Degenerative disc disease can negatively impact your life. But first, let’s understand exactly what discs are and why they are important to your health.

Spinal Discs

Textbook illustration of degenerative disc disease.

Discs are the spine’s shock absorbers. They are filled with jelly and your vertebrae need them for cushioning and movement.  There is one disc between each pair of vertebrae. While designed to absorb shock and increase flexibility, they are more delicate than you would think.

The disc has a tough outer layer known as the anulus fibrosus. The tough outer layer covers a spongy gel-like core called the nucleus pulposus.  The outer part contains nerves that cause pain when torn. The core has proteins that will inflame nerves if the gel leaks outside the disc.

The disc is susceptible to injury.  Because it has a low blood supply, an injured disc is unable to heal itself.  The disc may go through three stages of degeneration over time. Sometimes degeneration takes twenty to thirty years after the original injury.

  • Pain diminishes spinal mobility
  • Unstable vertebrae cause intermittent back pain at the injury site
  • The body compensates and restabilizes the injury, with the patient having less pain.

Degenerative disc disease means the disc is failing. Most people with degenerative disc disease have normal spinal health in their thirties and forties. They probably have been active in these decades. But what causes some people to be more prone to degenerative disc disease than others?

  • Sports or rigorous daily activities. By the age of 60, many people will have a degree of degeneration of their discs. Most of them won’t have back pain.  Rigorous daily activities and sports can cause tears to the outer covering of the disc. Tears make disability far more likely.
  • Disc dehydration. When we are younger, our discs contain around 80% fluid. As we get older, our discs will begin to dehydrate and dry out, leaving them less capable of absorbing shocks.
  • Spinal injuries. A spinal injury can cause instability, soreness, and swelling that leads to back pain.

Normal Aging or Degenerative Disc Disease?

How can we tell if the occasional discomfort we are feeling is a normal sign of aging, or something more?

Your pain may be related to degenerative disc disease if it:

Is relieved by changing your position or lying down but seems to be worse when sitting.  Your discs are actually under three times as much stress while sitting as they are when you are standing.

  • Seems to be relieved by running or walking more than sitting or standing for an extended period of time.
  • Gets worse if you twist, bend, or lift an object
  • Seems to cause weakness in the legs, or numbness and tingling in your extremities.  You may notice a foot drop, which could indicate damage to the nerves.
  • Causes intermittent pain that can last days, weeks or even months before it seems to be relieved.  The pain can be of any intensity from nagging and aching to disabling and severe.  Pain can be felt in the back or radiate to the buttocks, neck, thigh, hands and arms depending on where the disc is.

If you are experiencing back pain of any kind, it is always best to seek the advice of a professional.  Your doctor will base a potential diagnosis of degenerative disc disease on a combination of things. Your doctor listens to your reported symptoms. Then they perform a thorough medical history and a detailed physical examination. The doctor may also order an MRI. An MRI can show disc damages, confirming your diagnosis of degenerative disc disease.

How Will a Chiropractor Offer Treatment For Degenerative Disc Disease?

Woman seeking treatment for degenerative disc disease with a chiropractic adjustment.

Your chiropractor has several options for improving your range of motion, improving your joint mobility, and reducing inflammation. If you don’t have an advanced disc degeneration, your chiropractor will work on the discs themselves, increasing their functionality.

Your chiropractor will use any combination of spinal manipulation and manual therapies.  These can include:

  • Flexion-distraction. This technique is generally used for spinal stenosis and disc herniations. It involves a non-thrusting, gentle technique.
  • Resistance and manual joint stretching. Your chiropractor may choose these techniques to relieve the symptoms and pain associated with degenerative disc disease.
  • Instrument assisted techniques.  From soft tissue therapies to manipulation, these techniques can apply force gently and without force to reduce the symptoms and pain of your degenerative disc disease. The chiropractor can use tools and instruments to treat your condition without having to directly manipulate the spine and surrounding tissues.
  • Spinal manipulation. Your chiropractor can identify areas and joints affected by degenerative disc disease. They are also trained to find areas showing restricted or abnormal movements. The doctor will use very gentle thrusting techniques to restore joint mobility. This a spinal adjustment.
  • Therapeutic massages. Massages are a time-tested way of releasing painful tension in the muscles.
  • Trigger point therapy. Your chiropractor will apply direct pressure on any painfully tight muscle areas to relieve tensions.

Will Chiropractic Care Really Help My Degenerative Disc Disease?

Yes, your chiropractor can help relieve the pain and symptoms of degenerative disc disease. In addition to treating the condition, the chiropractor will coach and advise patients on other ways they can help themselves with a treatment plan designed to treat the “whole person.”  This may include lifestyle changes, stress management, and making healthy nutritional choices.

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