How To Reverse Degenerative Disc Disease
Can a chiropractor help Degenerative Disc Disease?
If you’re one of the thousands of patients who’ve walked into our Brookfield chiropractic office looking for help with chronic back pain, you know how debilitating it can be. And if you’re one of the millions of Americans whose back pain is the result of degenerative disc disease (DDD), you know just how difficult it can be to actually find something that’ll get you some relief.
You’re not alone: approximately 40% of adults over age 40 have at least one degenerated spinal disc. By age 60, that number jumps to 90%.
But if your doctor’s diagnosed you with disc degeneration, don’t lose hope just yet. There are a ton of myths and misunderstandings about spinal discs, and it’s tough to separate fact from fiction. So we’re going to cover everything you need to know about spinal discs and how to prevent (or reverse) degenerative disc disease.
What are spinal discs?
First things first: what are spinal discs?
Spinal discs are the cushions that sit between the vertebrae in your spine – hence their proper name, intervertebral discs. They’re made up of a tough outer layer called the annulus fibrosus and a soft, gel-like center called the nucleus pulposus. Spinal discs act as shock absorbers for the spine and help to evenly distribute the compressive forces created by being upright all day.
Despite claims by many so-called experts on social media, spinal discs are actually very adaptable and resilient structures, just like the rest of your muscles, tendons and bones. Regular exercise is NOT dangerous or harmful for spinal discs (more on that later).
What is degenerative disc disease?
Degenerative disc disease refers to the break down of the spinal discs and the loss of their ability to absorb these compressive forces. To some degree, disc degeneration is a natural part of aging. When you’re young and healthy, your spinal discs are thick and spongy. But as you age, your discs loose their natural sponginess, making them flatter, drier, and more brittle and prone to damage.
Flat, dry discs can rupture (or herniate) and press on sensitive nerves. They also don’t absorb shocks as well, which leave your vertebrae vulnerable to fractures and facet joint inflammation. Symptoms usually associated with degenerated discs include:
- Chronic neck or back pain
- Reduced range of motion in the spine
- Sharp, stabbing, or burning pain
- Pain that radiates to your shoulders, arms, or hands
- Pain that radiates to your buttocks or legs
- Weakness arms or legs
- Increase pain when you twist or bend your spine
- Feeling like your neck or back can’t support itself
- Pain that’s worse when looking down at a phone, sitting, or standing
- Reduced pain when changing positions frequently
- Less pain when lying down
How Do You Diagnose Degenerative Disc Disease?
Generally, if your doctor suspects DDD, they’ll order imaging tests such as x-rays, MRIs, or CT scans to get a closer look at the spine and the condition of the discs before making a definitive diagnosis. Spinal discs are graded I (no degeneration) through V (severe degeneration).
However, it’s important to keep in mind that the symptoms listed above aren’t exclusive to degenerative disc disease. The spine is an extremely complicated piece of machinery, and even if your x-rays show you have degeneration in your spine, it may not necessarily be the cause of the back pain you’re experiencing.
What’s even more important to understand is that back pain is often a complex of multiple problems that need to be addressed, not just a degenerated disc. That’s a big reason why primary care physicians – when they see disc degeneration on an x-ray – simply default to prescribing pain-killers, anti-inflammatories or cortisone injections and send the patient on their way, then wonder why their patients aren’t any better at their next visit.
In fact, a study out of Spine Journal found that only 17% of patients report ever getting significant relief from their back pain through their primary care provider.
*They also found that that number jumped to 73% when they added chiropractic care to their treatment plan.
What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?
While the natural aging process of the spine is the primary driver in degenerative disc disease, the causes are usually multifactorial. Interestingly enough, studies suggest our genetics actually play just a big a role as what we do for a living when it comes to degenerative disc disease.
But make no mistake: how active we are does play a hugely significant role in the health of our spinal discs. Chronic inactivity – specifically, sitting for extended periods of time – has been shown to put you at significantly greater risk of spinal disc degeneration.
Thankfully for desk jockeys everywhere, this can be counteracted with even brief periods of movement (5 minutes at a time) or a regular change of working positions.
Biomechanical dysfunction (or misalignment) between segments of the spine will also cause extra wear and tear on the discs that separate them. Think of your spinal discs like the tires on your car – it’s easy to see the abnormal, uneven wear on a tire when your wheels aren’t aligned, and the same thing happens when altered biomechanics in your spine put uneven wear on your spinal discs.
How Can You Prevent – or Reverse – Degenerative Disc Disease?
The good news is that, in the majority of cases, discs can heal and regenerate on their own without the need for surgery. So how do you make that happen?
1. Do the no-brainer lifestyle changes first.
There are some super-easy lifestyle changes to help prevent disc degeneration that you can incorporate today, including losing weight (if you’re overweight or obese), quitting smoking, staying hydrated, avoiding repetitive strain activities, and developing strong core and glute muscles to support your spine.
2. Eat better.
What you eat plays a big a role, too. As you age, your body changes the way it absorbs nutrients, so it’s important to eat more nutrient-rich, inflammation-fighting foods as you get older. Luckily, these are pretty easy to incorporate into your daily diet. Prioritize:
• Green leafy vegetables
• Bright-colored fruits
• Low-fat dairy products
• Whole grains
• Lean proteins (e.g. seafood, poultry without skin, beans)
• Salmon, sardines, and other fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids
It’s also worth supplementing with Vitamin D3, Vitamin K2, calcium and magnesium if you’re not getting enough in your regular diet.
3. Get off your butt during the day.
Extended periods of inactivity have been shown to be awful for your disc health. A good habit to get into: set a timer to get up and walk for 5 minutes – to the water cooler, to the bathroom, etc – once an hour.
4. Make an appointment with a chiropractor.
A good chiropractor who knows what they’re doing will be able to correct any biomechanical dysfunction going on in your spine and pelvis that’s putting extra stress – and therefore extra wear and tear – on your spinal discs so healing and regeneration can take place. Chiropractic treatment can also reduce inflammation in the surrounding spinal tissues, improve the range of motion of the spine, and relieve muscle tension.
5. Finally, EXERCISE!
Contrary to popular belief, exercise – even the high-impact kind – has a net positive effect for your spinal discs, improving their fluid content and height. This includes resistance and strength based training (often considered to be harmful or dangerous to our discs), which actually leads to positive disc adaptions!
And despite claims, there’s zero evidence that lifting heavy weights regularly, with any kind of technique or form, increases your risk of disc degeneration or back pain.
Same with long-distance running, with runners seen to have thicker and better hydrated discs than non-runners.
The Ascent Chiropractic Difference
The bottom line is that your discs are strong, adaptable, and self-healing, so if you’ve been given the scary-sounding diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, don’t lose hope just yet.
There’s a reason so many patients choose us as their chiropractor – we’re experts in the biomechanics of everything from your head to your toes, and we combine the best of both chiropractic and soft tissue therapy treatments. So if you’ve been self-diagnosing, living in the pharmacy aisle, or dismissed by doctors and therapists who aren’t interested in actually figuring out how to correct your back pain, it’s time to get the answers you deserve and get out of pain for good.
Looking for a Brookfield Chiropractor and ready to get started?
Make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic by calling 262-345-4166 or using our online scheduling app.