Back Pain? Neck Pain? Or Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative disc disease refers to symptoms of back pain or neck pain caused by wear-and-tear on a spinal disc. It can also cause numbness and tingling in your arms and legs. Most often, degenerative disc disease occurs in your neck and lower back because these are the areas that undergo the most motion and stress.
Degenerative disc disease isn’t really a “disease.” Instead, it often occurs when physical stressors and minor injuries that make your spinal discs weaken and lose water. Yet degenerative disc disease is a bigger problem than you might realize, and pain can actually be a good thing here.
While they can happen in any area of your spine, degenerative disc disease commonly happens in your neck (cervical spine) and lower back (lumbar spine). These areas of your spine undergo the most motion and stress, making them most susceptible to disc degeneration.
Your Spinal Cord is Your Backbone of Health
Your spine is made of 33 individual bones or vertebrae — some of which fuse, naturally, such as the bones making up the sacrum — stacked one on top of the other, that provides serious support for your entire body. Your spinal column helps you stand up, bend, twist, and otherwise move about.
Between each of those vertebrae is a disc, which separates and cushion your vertebrae so they don’t rub together. A healthy, well-hydrated disc contains sufficient water that gives your spine cushioning and flexibility. Your spinal discs hold your spine together and allow you to move. They absorb the impact of movement with fluid, but when those spinal discs gradually lose fluid, the rigid outer shell of the disc weakens and begins to collapse. The intervertebral discs become dehydrated, lose elasticity, and collapse.
Your core – your lower back and abdominal muscles—work together to maintain the spine’s proper alignment. When your spine’s structure becomes compromised, your spinal cord struggles to communicate effectively with your body.
To understand this better, imagine your core as a cast for a broken arm. Once the bone becomes reset, your doctor puts a hard cast around your arm bone so it heals quickly and properly. Without that cast, even a reset broken bone couldn’t heal properly doing basic tasks like driving.
When spinal bones lose proper alignment or movement — in a condition we refer to as the vertebral subluxation complex — they aggravate surrounding nerves and tissue that can disrupt basic organ function. When this type of subluxation occurs, you might feel some symptoms such as:
- Low back pain
- Neck pain
- Tingling sensations
- Difficulty doing basic tasks like walking or unscrewing a jar
While these symptoms can be absolutely miserable, not having them becomes much worse. That’s because pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. Conditions like degenerative disc disease can develop for years without you realizing it, but once those symptoms occur, they can be severe.
What Causes Degenerative Disc Disease?
Several factors contribute to degenerative disc disease:
- cardiovascular disease;
- occupational factors, like repetitive heavy lifting and vibration;
- spinal instability; and
- misalignment in the spine.
In other words, age and genetics can certainly contribute to disc degeneration, but what’s worse for the spine is the daily wear-and-tear— things like heavy lifting or forceful bending — that weaken these discs.
For instance, you wake up feeling stiff, and while you’re pouring that first cup of coffee, you notice your significant other left a gigantic bag of dog food by the kitchen door. You lift it incorrectly and strain your lower back.
You then drive to work slumped over the steering wheel, arriving at your desk job where you slouch and hunch over your computer for hours.
Eventually, these small incorrect actions put strain on your spine and kick-start the development of degenerative disc disease.
Who Gets Degenerative Disc Disease?
About 30 percent (if not more) of 30–50-year-olds have some degree of disc space degeneration — from mild degenerative disc disease to severe degenerative disc disease. Altogether, about 70–85 percent of people experience lumbar back pain during their lifetime.
Degenerative disc disease is one cause, but other things like disc herniation, spondylolysis, and spondylolisthesis can create pain.
Healing Pain in Your Spine
You can see how common degenerative disc disease is, so how do you heal your spine and reduce the symptoms of neck or back pain.
When you visit your healthcare practitioner, it is important to be mindful about the timeline of pain, radiation of pain, prior episodes of trauma, and what might trigger those and other symptoms.
Many patients complain about pain radiating down both buttocks and lower extremities, and healthcare practitioners can determine whether the pain is localized to the lower back or if radiation occurs to the leg(s). After all, radiating pain as the main issue can help better treat this problem than having lower back pain that potentially comes from muscle fatigue and strain.
Specific chiropractic adjustments improve the movement and alignment of your vertebrae, but you will also need to do supplementary core exercises and maintain good posture for healthy spine alignment.
5 Strategies to Help with Degenerative Disc Disease
These five strategies can help whether you’re looking to prevent or overcome degenerative disc disease.
1. Seek Specific Spinal Correction.
If you suspect degenerative disc disease, have your spine analyzed as soon as possible. Depending on your age, weight, and lifestyle habits, your spinal discs may already be under a lot of pressure. Spinal correction can relieve this pressure and bring the spine into a better position.
2. Become proactive.
Evaluating the health of your spine is the single most effective way to prevent the gradual worsening of degenerative disc disease. Remember, that daily wear and tear on your spine can be the most damaging. Be mindful of your daily activities and maintain good posture.
3. Rethink exercise.
Crunches are so 1980s; they strain your spinal discs. Do core exercises, like basic planks, side planks, and work with a stability ball. A personal trainer might be able to guide you to performing safe core exercises.
4. Stretch regularly.
Make a habit to stretch when you wake up and before you go to bed for 5–10 minutes. Doing so improves flexibility, boosts blood flow, and loosens tight, aching muscles. Stretching shouldn’t hurt. If you experience pain when you stretch, see your chiropractor or other healthcare professional immediately.
5. Reduce inflammation.
Like with most problems, chronic inflammation plays a role in degenerative disc disease. One of the best ways to prevent degenerative disc disease, or reduce its impact, is with an anti-inflammatory diet. This includes wild-caught fish, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, freshly ground flaxseed and chia seed, and herbs and spices like turmeric and ginger. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish and fish oil has been demonstrated to have the same effect on reducing pain as ibuprofen and is safer.
Your spinal cord is your backbone of health. If you treat it right, see a chiropractor regularly, and exercise it safely, it will keep your body in a state of health and wellness long-term.