Understanding what degenerative disc disease is
Early degenerative disc disease, lumbar osteoarthritis, bone spurs, “your back is breaking down”, thinned discs; these are all very scary terms that may be given as a diagnosis to our patients. Many times, these findings come after an X-ray or an MRI for back pain. The goal of this post is to help you understand what these terms really mean and why they might not be as scary as you think!
First let us explain what is happening in your body.
As we age, our spinal discs, which sit in between the bones of our back, start to get smaller and lose some of their fluid content. This is a normal process and happens to everyone. As this happens, the disc starts to become fibrotic; which just means that it starts to become less squishy and a little more tough. Our body doesn’t like this very much so it starts to lay down a small bit of extra bone to try and help stabilize things. This process is very much a normal event that happens to the majority of the population as we age. These changes can sometimes be associated with low back pain, hip pain and sometimes leg pain. The tricky part is finding out if this process is the cause of your pain or not.
A very well known study from 2014 found that in patients over 50 with no pain, we repeat, WITH NO PAIN, found that at least 80% of them had findings of degenerative disc disease.
This study changed the way that many healthcare providers view these findings. We used to attribute finding these changes on an X-ray as meaning that they were the cause of pain, but now we have to rethink that and realize that there may be more to the story.
So where do we go from here? You’re thinking, “I still have low back pain and you’re telling me that these findings might not be causing my pain?”
This study doesn’t tell us that the findings aren’t causing your pain, it tells us that an X-ray doesn’t give us a good picture of you as a whole person.
Pain is a very complex phenomenon, and many times it doesn’t have a single cause, like a bone spur or degeneration found in the low back. A proper physical exam done by a medical professional such as a chiropractor, physician or physiotherapist combined with your history and imaging results will help us decide what is causing your pain and what the best treatment is for you.
What else do we know about these “degenerative changes”? We know that movement is the single best thing you can do. It can prevent and alleviate any pain associated with it. Whether that is specific exercises given to you by someone on our team or something as simple as walking or swimming more, the more we move, typically the better we feel.
Here are some treatments that our clinic offers to help with this pain:
- Adjustments (spinal manipulative therapy) performed by one of our chiropractors
- Specific home exercises prescribed by any of our team members
- Massage therapy
The best way to think about these degenerative changes or degenerative disc disease is like the grey hair of the spine. As we age, our hair changes colour, but it still functions as hair. As we age, our spine changes the way that it looks but it is still able to function and move.
Pain from degenerative disc disease doesn’t have to be something that causes you to stop doing the things you love. Come see us today and we can help you get out of pain.
Brinjikji W, Luetmer PH, Comstock B, et al. Systematic literature review of imaging features of spinal degeneration in asymptomatic populations. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2015;36(4):811–816. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A4173
ACAC Blog: Degenerative Disc Disease