The name “degenerative disc disease (DDD)” is a misnomer — DDD isn’t actually a disease, but rather a condition where damage to a disc in your spine causes pain. Degeneration may start as early as in your 20s, and it can take decades before you feel the consequences, though not everyone with the condition ends up in pain.
At Santa Cruz Osteopathic, located in Capitola, California, osteopathic physician Dr. Richard Bernstein understands how uncomfortable degenerative disc disease can be and offers an integrative approach to treatment that emphasizes your body’s natural recovery. Here’s what he wants you to know about the condition, its symptoms, and its treatments.
How your spine works
Your spine is your backbone, strong and stiff enough to allow you to stand up straight, yet flexible enough to let you bend, flex, and twist. It’s composed of 24 interlocking bony vertebrae separated by soft intervertebral discs that act as shock absorbers when you move. The outer part of each disc is firm and contains nerves, and the inner material is more gel-like; if it bulges or tears, the gel can impinge on spinal nerves, causing a great deal of pain.
The vertebrae form the spinal column, which surrounds and protects the spinal canal. Nerves run through the canal, exiting the spine and heading out to peripheral regions like the arms and legs.
Cartilage surrounds each spinal joint, protecting and cushioning it. Wear-and-tear from use over time can wear down the cartilage, exacerbating DDD.
The spine is divided into four parts:
- Cervical spine (neck)
- Thoracic spine (upper- and mid-back)
- Lumbar spine (lower back)
- The sacrum and coccyx (tailbone) at the lower end
While DDD can occur in any region, it’s most common in the cervical or lumbar spine.
Causes of degenerative disc disease
Even though your spine starts degenerating in your 20s, it takes a long time for spinal discs to wear down, which is why symptoms often don’t show up for decades. But normal wear-and-tear isn’t the only cause of the problem. Other causes include:
- Activity level: lifting, carrying, and playing sports all take their toll on your spine
- Injuries: back injuries that cause swelling or soreness increase risk
- Genes: tends to run in families; a 2016 study in Genes & Diseases found several genetic defects associated with changes inside the spinal discs
- Spinal diseases: conditions such as ankylosing spondylitis (an inflammatory spine condition that causes vertebral fusion) can increase your risk
- Excess weight: increases the load on your spine that compresses the spinal discs, according to a 2012 study in Arthritis & Rheumatology.
- Smoking: contributes to disc degeneration
Signs of degenerative disc disease
While not everyone gets pain with DDD, the most characteristic symptom is a low-grade, continuous pain near the disc that occasionally flares into more severe or disabling pain. Baseline pain varies from one person to the next.
Other common symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:
- Increased pain with bending, twisting, or lifting something heavy
- Instability: feeling that the spine can’t provide support, or it locks up
- Muscle tension or muscle spasms
- Possible hot, sharp, stabbing and radiating pain, known as radiculopathy; sciatica is a good example of lumbar radiculopathy
- Increased pain with certain positions: includes sitting or standing for extended periods or looking down at a phone or book (“tech neck”)
- Reduced pain when changing positions frequently or stretching spine
- Decreased pain with certain positions, such as reclining or lying down with a pillow under the knees
Treating degenerative disc disease
In most cases, you can treat DDD without surgery. Dr. Bernstein uses an integrative approach that helps you enjoy better whole-body health and tailors your treatment plan to your specific needs.
Your treatments may include:
- Osteopathic manual medicine: hands-on manipulation like stretching, resistance, and light pressure
- Regenerative medicine: stem cells regenerate damaged discs by reducing inflammation, which reduces symptoms
- Therapeutic exercise program: boosts range of motion and improves spinal support
Dr. Bernstein also employs spinal decompression therapy, using the SpineMED® system. He uses precise computerized adjustments to move the spinal section containing the degenerating disc. This relieves pressure on the nerves and increases blood flow to the disc, helping it start the repair process.
Are you experiencing any of the symptoms of degenerative disc disease? If so, it’s time to come into Santa Cruz Osteopathic for an evaluation. Give the office a call at 831-464-1605, or book your consultation online.