[Image shows a depiction of a person’s back with the spinal column highlighted.]
Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a common medical condition that affects a large and growing portion of the population. In fact, low back pain, a common symptom of DDD, is the most common cause for disability in individuals aged 45 years or older.
The number of people with the disorder of DDD and accompanying low back pain carry enormous weight when considering the socioeconomic impact of the disease. In the United States, total economic losses caused by low back pain exceed 100 billion dollars per year in both direct and indirect medical costs and reduced economic output due to reduced productivity.
Given the statistics for DDD and its effects, it is a disease that needs to be addressed with the most advanced treatments possible. Learn more about DDD and today’s treatment options:
Diagnosis of Degenerative Disc Disease
DDD is difficult not only to treat, but to diagnose in the first place. Disc degeneration is, by itself, a specific diagnosis. DDD refers broadly to the general breakdown of the discs in the spinal column. These discs are made of a spongy form of cartilage and are meant to cushion the vertebrae of the spine during normal movement and incidents of sudden impact.
The breakdown of the spinal discs is a normal part of the aging process, though it can speed up or slow down based on various factors – genetics, environment, and lifestyle choices. Roughly 85 percent of people (17 out of every 20) will have some signs of disc degeneration by age 50.
A majority of people with DDD will suffer no symptoms – including low back pain – and will live their lives completely unaware of the changes to their spine. This means that there are two specific critical factors that influence how DDD is diagnosed and treated:
- Most people will, at some point in their lives, have detectable amounts of disc degeneration.
- Just because someone has DDD, that does not necessarily mean it is responsible for any low back pain or other symptoms – reduced activity, mobility problems, and lack of energy.
[Image shows a depiction of the spinal column and spinal discs.]
Conservative Treatment Options
Perceived treatment options for DDD may frighten people away from seeking treatment until the pain becomes almost unbearable. Some treatments may be thought of as expensive and risky. DDD treatment also often requires long recovery periods – with the limited promise of a complete return to pre-pain levels of activity or even a total remission of the pain. However, the longer that treatment is avoided, the higher the risk and the longer the recovery.
For this reason, if DDD is suspected, early intervention is key before the condition worsens, which would make treatment increasingly difficult. Treatment interventions can start with conservative options. Many of the well-researched conservative approaches rely on a number of different medical disciplines (mental health, rehabilitation, and orthopedics).
Conservative treatment of chronic, low back pain and DDD will prevent some of the challenges seen in the more invasive and radical treatment methods. Where surgical treatment focuses on making alterations to the spine and its structures in order to reduce pain, the most conservative treatment options look to first improve spine function. Pain reduction is treated as a secondary concern and may occur as a result of improving the spine function.
In some cases, pain reduction does become the primary focus of conservative treatment. The most common way to achieve pain reduction is through the use of non-steroidal painkillers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. However, none of these drugs do anything to address the cause of the back pain, only the symptom itself.
Those wary of long-term pain medication use may prefer chiropractic care and exercise therapies. These treat not just the pain, but also help slow damage to the discs. Such approaches can restore blood flow, ease inflammation, reduce muscle tension, and increase the range of motion. They can also stimulate the release of natural pain-relieving endorphins.
Patients must understand that conservative treatments are not intended to produce results overnight, can still be complex, and require significant patience for them to work. However, these conservative treatments may allow an individuals to avoid more invasive options.
[Image shows a depiction of the spinal column with an injured spinal disc.]
Surgical Treatment Options
One option that may be required to reduce the effects of DDD is surgery. Surgical options for treating DDD and its accompanying low back pain range from minimally-invasive procedures such as microdiscectomies to more invasive ones such as laminectomies and spinal fusions.
Surgery may help relieve the pain caused by DDD and any related pressure on the nerves.
While these types of techniques have become increasingly common, they all involve the risks that accompany any type of surgery. They also involve risks that are more specific to surgery on or around the spine. When considering surgical treatment for your DDD and/or low back pain, be sure to get a second or third opinion. Different perspectives can help you fully understand the risks, likelihood of success, and expenses of these options. Also, your doctor will probably suggest a more conservative course of treatment prior to taking surgical intervention.
Researchers are constantly looking for new ways to improve the quality of life for patients. Stem cell therapy and disc replacement are the newest most talked about treatments for DDD that are being actively researched. While still in the experimental phase, either of these treatment methods could help some people for whom conservative options or even surgery have failed.
Stem Cell Therapy
Scientists are investigating the possibility of using stem cells to either restore the integrity of the disc or to prevent the disc’s further degeneration. Researcher Helena Barreto-Henriksson and her colleagues found that when stem cells were injected into a damaged disc in animal models, they showed some healing capacity. According to Barreto-Henriksson, “Images taken by MRI showed that the transplanted stem cells survived, that they developed into cells that had a function similar to that of disc cells, and that there was a certain degree of healing in the disc.”
Another recent study explored the use of notochord cells, which are the precursors of intervertebral discs present in all vertebrates. These were found to survive into adulthood in some animals. The study examined adult dogs and found that these cells secreted a connective tissue growth factor (CTGF), which keeps cartilage healthy and flexible. If these cells can be found in human vertebrae, therapies may be developed that would provide treatment for DDD.
The first prosthetic lumbar disc was implanted by Swedish surgeon Ulf Fernstrom in the late 1950s. His method involved using a steel ball as an artificial disc. Based on his approach, research continues to look for ways to entirely replace the discs damaged by DDD.
The goal is to use methods that will mimic the normal movement of the spine and materials that will not break down or otherwise endanger the patient, providing a long-term solution. Current designs use polymer composites and plates made of unique alloys – titanium, steel, cobalt, and chromium. The research for perfecting these approaches is ongoing.
[Image shows a chiropractor assisting a patient with degenerative disc disease.]
Low back pain and reduced mobility can be concerning for anyone. When such problems are noticed, it is important to seek evaluation for treatment. A diagnosis of DDD can be equally concerning, but the diagnosis is the first step towards treatment and maintenance of function. A medical provider or doctor of chiropractic care can do the examinations necessary to assess the causes of low back pain and reduced mobility. Consider visiting Chiropractor Anchorage or a chiropractor near you for your disc degeneration as they can take conservative approaches to treatment before considering more invasive options. If conservative options fail, they can discuss advanced approaches.
[Image shows Dr. Brent Wells, chiropractor at Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab.]
Biography: Dr. Brent Wells, D.C. earned his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Nevada and his doctorate from the Western States Chiropractic College. Dr. Wells founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab in 1998. Dr. Wells and his staff are trained to address concerns related to Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD). When not working with patients, Dr. Wells enjoys spending time with family, continuing his education, and playing the guitar.