Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is also known as sponydylosis — not to be confused with spondylolisthesis, which is a slippage of one vertebrae over another. DDD refers to the breakdown of the intervertebral disc, a fibro-cartilagenous structure that sits between all the vertebrae in the spine from C2 all the way down to S1.

 
 

Cervical degenerative disc disease refers to the breakdown of the discs in the neck.

 
 
 

Lumbar degenerative disc disease refers to a breakdown in the discs in the low back.

 

The human disc has basically three functions:

  1. To absorb the shock of gravity and our weight on the vertebrae

  2. To act as a spacer to allow the spinal nerve roots to exit the spine

  3. To distribute forces around the spine for normal movement and function.


 

The design of the discs is basically a fibrous donut surrounding a gelatinous center. A healthy disc will be approximately 85% water allowing for the discs flexibility, elasticity, and giving it an ability to temporarily deform under stress.

 
 
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The design of the discs is basically a fibrous donut surrounding a gelatinous center.

A healthy disc will be approximately 85% water allowing for the discs flexibility, elasticity, and giving it an ability to temporarily deform under stress.

 
 

In our mid teens, the blood supply to the discs essentially atrophies and disappears. The disc being a living structure needs to exchange built up acidic waste products with water, and the only way that can occur after the blood supply is gone is through a process of osmosis and imbibition. This is like pushing down on a wet sponge and watching the water squirt out, and letting go and watching the water suck back in. The ability of your disc to perform that is dependent on what is called normal intervertebral motor unit function. That is to say  the movement of the vertebrae, the disc, and the facet joints. This in turn is dependent on several mechanisms—normal disc morphology, normal muscle function around the vertebrae, and normal and intact ligaments and facet joints. A derangement of any of these mechanisms can restrict or alter the normal mechanical motion of the disc, thereby decreasing the normal osmotic fluid exchange and causing the disc to lose its hydration and dry out.

For example, if you had a whiplash injury to your neck that disrupted normal range of motion this could lead to cervical degenerative disc disease in the future. On an MRI, looking at the spine from the side, we should see a bright white signal inside your disc indicating that the disc is well hydrated. If we see a darkened disc, it means your discs are dessicated (dried out) and have lost some of their elasticity, which further impedes movement causing further degeneration. This is typical in the cervical spine or lumbar spine, as thoracic spine DDD is slightly less common.

As discs lose their elasticity, they can begin to compress, bulge, herniate and rupture. If a disc pushes against a nerve root or the spinal cord, this can cause radiculopathy, radicular pain, or myelopathy, which means that you have pressure against your spinal cord—not a good thing!

 
 
 

Cervical degenerative disc disease, while common in aging populations, is not normal. Although many doctors may not make this distinction — it is an important one.

Just because something is common, does not mean it’s normal.

 
 

Whether it’s lumbar or cervical degenerative disc disease that you are suffering with, your spine and discs are breaking down either way. This can cause myriad problems, some of which may surprise you.

 
  • You may simply have neck pain, or pain that radiates into your shoulders or arms.

  • You may have symptoms in your feet that are caused by spinal cord problems in your neck.

  • If severe, you could lose bladder control.

  • If your spine is breaking down, it can lead to abnormal sensory signaling to your brain that can alter brain function, thereby changing your perception of your environment and the world.


 

Truly, one of the most effective means of treating a degenerative disc disease and other arthridities of the spine is Non-Surgical Spinal Decompression. Decompression can recreate the normal pumping action of the disc that creates osmosis and imbibition. It also allows us to rehydrate the disc and bring nutrients into the disc to help it heal and restore normal function to the disc reducing and eliminating the pain caused by a degenerated disc and it can relieve the pressure on overloaded facet joints.  It is the only therapy I am aware of that can show an increase in disc height and increased hydration after therapy, as seen and measured on an MRI.

A disc is a ligament and ligaments have poor to no blood supply. That is why a sprain will heal slower than a fracture. A broken bone has a rich blood supply to allow it to heal, not so with ligaments. The beauty of non-surgical spinal decompression is that it helps to give the discs the nutrients it needs to heal itself.