What is Degenerative Disc Disease? And How Do We Prevent It?


What is degenerative disc disease?

What is degenerative disc disease?

There are a number of diagnoses out there that befuddle me, degenerate disc disease being one of them. The main reason for my consternation is that it is not a disease—it is considered to be a natural part of the aging process.

While I highly value MRI’s and their ability to see microscopically into our bones and joints, they have a downside. If someone aged fifty goes for an MRI that reveals degenerative disc disease, there is no baseline to compare this to. If that person had had an MRI ten years earlier that showed a spine without degenerative disc disease I would put much more stock into the diagnosis at fifty.

The spine is made up of 25 vertebras, give or take one or two. In between each vertebra is a fluid filled disc that acts as a shock absorber providing a cushion between each of the bones. The discs are made of a strong outer shell with a softer center.

There are many ways for these intervertebral discs to suffer. A bulging disc occurs when pressure from the vertebrae cause the disc to bulge out past the normal range of the spinal column. Herniation is when the bulge goes to the next level. Both of these issues can be a major problem if they impinge on a nearby nerve.

Where spinal stenosis is degeneration and narrowing of the bony spine, degenerative disc disease is when the discs between the vertebrae begin to wither. Degenerative disc disease tends to happen most frequently in the lumbar (lower) and cervical (upper) spine. I think the thoracic spine which is also home to the rib cage is spared because of the ribs. The cartilage and muscles separating each rib also provide a certain amount of support to the discs is that area.

So while I take issue with calling a natural part of the ageing process a disease, I also have a problem calling attention to it without offering a concrete means of alleviation and most often there isn’t much offered. There is no stopping the march of time but we can slow it down a bunch.

The spine’s role as shock absorber is one of its primary functions. To absorb shock successfully it has to be properly aligned. This is rarely the case and our spines can take an alignment beating in so many different places.

Forward head posture messes with the cervical spine. Excessive kyphosis (rounding of the upper back) puts undue stress on the thoracic spine. Last week I wrote about the thoracolumbar joint and its insecure place in the chain, and finally a misaligned pelvis messes with the equally important lumbosacral joint.

While the aging process definitely affects our spine, postural misalignments plague the spine in an equally profound way which can and do lead to degenerative disc disease.
Although you can’t mitigate the fact that we are essentially drying out and desiccating as we age which by its nature leads to degeneration, there are two main factors that we have control over in the search for a vital and pain free adulthood.

1. Skeletal alignment
2. Muscle tone

If we stand and move well we reduce a great deal of stress that it otherwise placed on the joints of the body. Good posture and movement patterns allow for a poised skeletal system that will handle the vagaries of aging much better than the alternative.

It is better to be strong then weak. I don’t mean super human strength—just composed muscle tone that supports the skeleton but especially the spine. I often refer to what I call the holy trinity of muscle groups—the inner thighs, the pelvic floor and the abdominals—as our most important maintenance system for the psoas muscle but you can substitute the spine for the psoas.

Developing balanced tone in these muscles can provide you with the best ammunition in the war against aging and the somewhat inevitable arrival of degenerative disc disease.

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Weekend Mashup: February 1st
Butt Stuff: Gluteus Medius and Piriformis
9 Comments
  1. In 2013 I had 3 back surgeries the last one leaving the biggest scare. I am 5 weeks out of surgery and still have a lot of pain mainly at night. I get up to walk some of it out but still not enough. I pray for all those out there like me that they can find Pease.

  2. There are nutritional things that can also support the body, including the bones, as we age; one of them is getting plenty of vitamin D balanced with the appropriate amount of vitamin A, from foods, not from supplements. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, of which I am a long-time member, taking vitamin D supplements is a bad idea; likewise Vitamin A supplements, due to the likelihood of becoming imbalanced in those two synergistic nutrients. Much safer to get them through foods, although they are foods that many people have been scared into eliminating from their diets: butter, full-fat cream, fish eggs, cod liver oil, and liver and other organ meats. I LOVE those foods myself! (Carrots and other vegetables won’t do the trick for Vitamin A, for reasons much too complicated to go into here). Also getting plenty of sun on your skin without sunscreens (which also scares many) helps produce something called cholesterol sulfate in the skin which is helpful to bones, joints and many other things in the body. I think one reason that it is presumed that everyone will get degenerative disc disease is because medical professionals rarely see someone eating anything close to an adequate diet.

  3. Ooops! And how could I forget it? Bone broths!!! From beef, chicken, fish, lamb, turkey…..they smell great, taste wonderful, and support the bones and joints much better than glucosamine supplements. They contain minerals that bones need, but even more, they contain a large amount of collagen, which acts as a matrix for the minerals to build bones in a latticework-like method.

  4. Hi.
    I was wondering if anyone can help me. I have suffered from degenerative disc disease for 4 years with cronic pain. I have recently had a discecromy. Ive tried physio, hyrdo, massage….everything but I am still in constant pain. I struggle with day to day life. Oh and I am 27. I was wondering if anyone can recommend anything else I can try to reduce pain. Obviously pain killers do not work 🙁

  5. Hi! I am very interested in your findings. I am the mom to 8 children. Reading this encourages me even more towards opting for a tummy tuck. I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease 2 years ago. It’s from C3 to C7. As well as osteoarthritis. I started researching after crying and fearing the worst only to find a lot of positive information. I started taking glucosamine and chrondroitin. This started helping after taking it consistently for 3 months. I have been taking this for a year and my back pain is gone.
    Now my husband has begun having back pain in his lower back. I’m back to the research! Please keep us updated! Thanks!

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