The bones of the spine are separated by tough cartilage pads called intervertebral discs (inter = “between”; vertebral = “bones of the spine”). Healthy discs are thick and flexible (like a wet sponge) allowing a wide range of bending and twisting motions. An unhealthy disc is stiff and hard (like a dry sponge) and prone to injuries such as bulging or herniation. Over time gravity, spinal joint dysfunction and accumulated trauma cause the discs to compress, flatten and degenerate. This constant compression prevents much-needed oxygen and nutrients from entering the disc. This ongoing starvation causes the once-tough outer layers of the disc to soften allowing the disc to become injured or diseased. Disc damage can occur anywhere in the spine. However, the discs of the neck (cervical spine) and low back (lumbar spine) are the most commonly injured.
Degenerative Disc Disease, as the name implies, is caused by the progressive degeneration of the intervertebral disc. Nearly every physical activity (no matter how simple) places strain upon these discs. Over time, repeated daily stress and minor traumas begin to weaken the discs of the spine. This process of accumulated wear and tear will eventually lead to disc degeneration commonly referred to as Degenerative Disc Disease.
The process of disc degeneration often begins with a chronic lack of oxygen and nutrients. This can occur because of 1) greater than normal compression of the disc or 2) as a result of decreased hydration. Greater compression comes from repetitive harmful activities such as bending, lifting or twisting – even prolonged sitting can create abnormally high levels of disc compression. Decreased hydration occurs when less fluid is pulled into the disc than is “pressed” out of the disc. This slowly creates a deflated or dehydrated disc. The medical term for this lack of disc fluid is Disc Desiccation and is the MRI finding most commonly used to identify Degenerative Disc Disease.
The symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease can vary widely depending on the location and severity of the condition. In general the degenerated disc itself causes little to no pain. If it does cause symptoms it often creates a stiffness around the affected joints or a deep ache that is often increased with movement of the joint. However, as the joint “warms up” the pain often decreases with this same body movement.
Although the degenerated disc often causes only mild symptoms, Degenerative Disc Disease can still cause severe pain and disability in other ways. The most serious problem related to Degenerative Disc Disease is direct nerve compression. This occurs when the spinal disc becomes thinner as part of the degenerative process. This thinning, also called Disc Height Reduction, causes the space between the bones to narrow. This narrowing also makes the hole between the nerves, the foramen, smaller, as well. Neural Foraminal Narrowing causes direct bone-on-nerve compression which can create such severe and debilitating symptoms as sharp pain, burning, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness. Over time this degenerative process can compromise the integrity of the nerve to the point that the organs controlled by these nerves can become diseased. Therefore, the most disconcerting problems associated Degenerative Disc Disease are not due to the disc itself, but how the disc degeneration causes the nerves to become injured as a result.
Non-Surgical Spinal Disc Decompression
Prior to the recent advances in Spinal Decompression technology NO curative treatment was available for Degenerative Disc Disease. Treatments aimed at symptomatic relief only include physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, chiropractic care, home exercises, bed rest, narcotic pain medication, muscle relaxant medication, anti-depressant medication, epidural steroid injections and nerve blocks. The main surgical intervention has been to eliminate the disc entirely and fuse the bones above and below the disc together – cervical fusion or lumbar fusion surgery. Unfortunately, the success rate of this surgery is notoriously poor and repeat surgery rates approach 100% approximately 7 years following the initial surgery. Disc Replacement Surgery is still several years away from general use and initial results have been less-than-favorable.
Spinal Decompression is the ONLY treatment available that can reduce the symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease by treating the CAUSE of the degeneration – chronic disc compression contributing to lose of disc fluid.