The word “disease” in degenerative disc disease is controversial. Many experts would prefer to call it a “disorder” rather than a disease. A look at the causes explains why calling it a disease is sometimes a misnomer.
Our “discs” are soft structures between the vertebrae in the spinal column. They give the spinal column its flexibility. When we’re young, the discs are composed of 80 percent water. As we age, they dehydrate and become thinner.
Degenerative disc disorders can be caused by accidents or aging. Some conditions that fall under the umbrella label of degenerative disc disease include:
- Ageing: As we age, the watery discs become thinner. In some people, this doesn’t cause major problems, but it can cause back or neck pain.
- Bone spurs may appear on ageing vertebrae.
- A ruptured or herniated disc is a disc that has “cracked” open. Some of the jelly-like contents come in contact with spinal nerves and cause pain.
- Sciatica occurs when a ruptured disc comes in contact with the sciatic nerve that runs the length of the spine. It can be very painful or the pain can be felt in the buttocks or leg.
Ruptured discs and sciatica are often preventable. Sciatica often occurs in the lower back and can be caused by improper lifting. When that happens, the onset can be immediate and extremely painful. Ruptured discs are sometimes caused by poor posture over a long period of time. The onset can be gradual and if the causes are identified early, the symptoms needn’t get worse.
Can Chiropractic Help?
Treatments for degenerative disc disease range from non-invasive to medication and even surgery. Non-invasive techniques are often recommended first and surgery is only a last resort. Non-invasive treatments include:
- Chiropractic manipulation may restore flexibility; relieve pressure against nerves; restore blood flow; and reduce muscle tension, which often aggravates the problem.
- A chiropractor can recommend exercises to help improve flexibility and reduce pain.
- Massage therapy may reduce muscle tension.
- A heat pad or hot and cold therapy can help reduce muscle tension.
Medication may be needed in some instances. Anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce the symptoms, but pain medications will only mask the pain and will not give lasting results. If all else fails, a patient may need to have surgery. A laminectomy is a surgical procedure that “trims” the bulging disc. In severe cases, sometimes the disc is removed and the vertebrae are fused together. This procedure can add pressure to surrounding discs and vertebrae and may cause spinal problems later on.
The first step is identifying the problem. Your doctor or chiropractor may be able to locate the problem or may want you to have an x ray or scan before treatment begins. If non-invasive treatment is recommended, try it first. Surgery should be a last resort and avoid pain medications unless they’re absolutely necessary.
For further information about sciatica, read What is Sciatica and How Can a Chiropractor Help?