The Dirt on Disc Degeneration

Hey gang, Chad Madden here. I wanted to talk about a question we get on a daily basis and that question is, how do I know if I have degenerative disc disease? There was a recent study published where it looked at people with an MRI or an X-ray or CT scan that had degenerative disc disease. These weren’t people that had pain… So if you’re 50 years of age and American, there’s an 80% chance that you have degenerative disc disease. If you’re 70, it jumps up to 92%. So almost everybody, whether you have pain or not, has this degeneration on a CT scan even if you don’t have any pain at all. Confusing right?


There’s another little set of rules that are really used to help us decide if you have it. So if you’re 50 years of age or over, if you have increased pain standing and walking, and you have relief when sitting. People who have this degeneration will tend to hunch forward. Have you ever seen in the grocery store, there’s somebody that will frequently lean forward on the grocery cart as they’re walking through the store? If they have all three of those rules, there’s nearly a 100% chance of them having this degeneration. This can also be the cause of back pain, sciatica pain (burning and tingling running down your legs), and weakness or heaviness in the legs.


So how does the degenerative disc disease work? Well, the  most common level for disc degeneration is L5. One segment in your spine is made up of a disc that is sandwiched between two vertebrae. There is a small space to the side of that segment where your nerves of your spinal cord originate and attach to all of your muscles. What happens over time, is that space shrinks due to the disc losing height because of aging. As it shrinks, the bone closes down on those nerves, giving you the tingling and burning sensations. However, you can help reduce those symptoms by leaning forward. Back to the person in the grocery store, the reason they’re leaning forward on that cart is because as you lean forward, that space that is getting pinched will open opened up because your spine bends forward. We’ll see a lot of people who display this sort of posture because it takes all of their pain away.


The trend we usually see, if people with degenerative disc might wake up in the morning and feel really stiff but they feel OK. Then, after they get up and move around or maybe take a hot shower, they loosen up and feel fine. But, by mid afternoon, after gravity has been pushing down on them all day long, they start to hurt. They feel fine in the morning because gravity was not pushing that space between the two vertebrae down and that space inflates back up while they sleep.


The key to treating degenerative disc disease is staying loose and doing stretches that encourage that forward bending motion that gives you relief. Increasing that joint space is our goal when someone with degeneration in their discs comes in for treatment. We do with with hands on treatment like traction and other core stabilizing techniques.


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