Whether they first see the phrase in print or hear it for the first time in a doctor’s office, “degenerative disc disease” is a term that many chronic back pain sufferers will encounter. It’s part of a brand new vocabulary that many patients learn as they try to understand their condition and navigate healthcare choices. But what does it really mean?
Degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease at all. Rather, it refers to normal changes in your spinal discs that tend to occur naturally as your body ages. Spinal discs are the soft “separators” between your vertebrae that cushion the individual bones and give your spine its flexibility. Healthy ones are thick and soft. Unhealthy ones are thinner and more brittle. Over the years, these discs may gradually become less effective as the amount of fluid inside is reduced or cumulative wear and tear damages the discs and raises the risk of bulging, rupture or disintegration. The truth is that by the time we reach middle age, most of us already have degenerating discs, whether we’re experiencing any pain or not. And even with our best imaging technology, it can be very difficult to tell whether this degeneration is actually the source of a patient’s problems.
So from a patient’s point of view, this bit of language-degenerative disc disease-can be both confusing and frustrating since it suggests a diagnosis but doesn’t usually come with a clear set of treatment options attached. In some ways, it may actually seem like a “catch-all diagnosis” or “un-diagnosis”.
Can I Benefit From Chiropractic Care if I Have Degenerative Disc Disease?
Sometimes patients who’ve been told they have degenerative disc disease wonder if chiropractic adjustments can still help them or if they’re safe. The answer to these questions depends on the patient’s individual circumstances, including whether the damaged discs are herniated or ruptured (bulging or broken) or have caused other conditions, such as osteoarthritis (a breakdown of the tissue that protects joints) or spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the channel within the spine that holds the spinal cord).
Chiropractic physicians are specially trained to diagnose the underlying causes of back pain and to recognize when specific types of treatment may be either ineffective or harmful in situations where patients have degenerative disc disease. Since they are often skilled in a wide range of conservative, non-surgical therapies, most chiropractors will recommend low-force, non-thrusting techniques in situations involving disc degeneration and related complications. They may also employ traditional spinal adjustments based upon the results of a careful evaluation of the patient.
Chiropractic care generally focuses on addressing back pain at its source as well as improving the spine’s stability and mobility. While there is no cure for degenerative disc disease, an effective treatment plan will usually combine manual therapies (such as manipulation or massage) with supervised exercise and/or nutritional programs and lifestyle changes designed to minimize its impact.