My Doctor says I have Degenerative Disc Disease. What does that mean?

Back pain is one of the leading causes of missed days off of work and visits to the doctor every year, second only to upper respiratory infections.  According to a study, 50% of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year. ( Many people are given the diagnosis of degenerative disc disease as the cause of their back pain symptoms. However, degeneration of the disc does not in of itself cause pain or the sudden onset of symptoms that send people to their doctor every year.

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is slightly misnamed. Most of us think that a disease is something we catch and is not considered normal. However, DDD is a natural aging process, and not really a disease, as most would think of it.

The disc has a fibrous outer covering, and a jelly like center that provides cushioning and shock absorbing abilities. The “jelly” normally holds a large amount of water to cushion the vertebrae from each other. As we age, the “jelly” gets somewhat dried out and doesn’t hold water well anymore. This causes the disc to shrink in size (both height and diameter), and is now considered degenerative.  This process takes place over years and pretty much anyone over the age of 40 has some degenerative disc changes occurring in their spine. So, why do some people experience back pain while others do not?

The answer lies in the amount and type of strain you place on your back. Those that sit for prolonged periods during the day have increased pressure in the disc that forces water out, and generally weaker core musculature.  Those that perform repetitive bending and twisting without using correct body mechanics can also damage their discs earlier than those that use correct mechanics. Gymnasts, cheerleaders, runners, and others that perform high impact sports may also see earlier signs of degeneration.

Degeneration of the discs can lead to increased bone growth around the vertebrae, called osteophytes or bone spurs. These bone spurs can then rub or press on structures that cause pain in the back. In the advanced stages this can lead to stenosis, or narrowing, of the space where nerves leave the spinal column causing pain, muscle spasm, difficulty performing daily tasks, and difficulty standing upright.

While degeneration of the discs is a natural part of aging, back pain does not have to be.  The sudden onset of back pain is not generally due to the degeneration and is highly treatable with a thorough physical therapy evaluation, skilled treatments, and minor lifestyle changes.  You can learn to protect your back and slow the process of degeneration by doing some simple exercises and using correct body mechanics. 

Attend one of our FREE workshops to learn more about protecting your back, self treating occasional back pain, and slowing the degenerative process. We are also happy to provide FREE consultations in the clinic or over the phone. Schedule today!