What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Between your body’s spinal bones are intervertebral discs acting like miniature shock absorbers, cushioning the joints. Over time, ordinary wear and tear take their toll on these discs. They gradually wear down, so the shock absorbers no longer ease the joints. Your body feels aches, pain and stiffness. Despite its name, degenerative disc disease is a condition, not a disease. (x) “Degenerative” means symptoms get worse. Other chronic degenerative diseases include arthritis and macular degeneration.
Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common spinal issues and a leading cause of back and neck pain. While it can be uncomfortable for you, degenerative disc disease rarely causes disability, nor should it require surgery or other invasive treatments.
Often, the pain from degenerative disc disease doesn’t worsen because, ironically, as your discs stiffen, they offer more support. Many individuals diagnosed with degenerative disc disease discover that pain and other symptoms subside after a few months, so living with it is doable.
Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms
Knowing the symptoms of this condition will help you take corrective actions to ease the pain and discomfort. If you have one or more of these symptoms, discuss it with your primary care physician so that you can change your lifestyle for your overall well-being. Some common signs include:
Pain is the most common symptom of degenerative disc disease, but symptoms will vary based on the location of damaged discs. Lower back pain is standard, as is a pain in your buttocks and upper thighs. The pain often comes and goes and can be severe or nagging. It can last a few days or a few months. (x)
Pain from degenerative discs often feels better when you walk or move around and worse when you sit still. It usually gets worse when you lift, twist or bend. Changing positions may help you, and lying down may also offer relief. (x) Other common complaints include pain in the back when sneezing, coughing or laughing. Muscles tighten when you sneeze, cough, and laugh and may put pressure on your nerves, triggering pain. (x)
- Lower Back Pain
Sometimes lower back pain can hinder your lifestyle. Acute back pain may result from a muscle spasm, a herniated disc, an infection, or a compression fracture. More rarely, pain may arise from a problem with nothing to do with the back, such as an aneurysm in the abdomen. Any sudden, unexplained, or debilitating pain warrants a call to the doctor.
There are many lower back pain causes, including a protruding tailbone. Even though the lower vertebrae are fused and don’t have discs between them, it’s possible to bruise, bend or even break the tailbone. Special ring-shaped pillows may offer relief to those with sore or bent tailbones.
After the lower back, the neck is the next most common area to experience pain due to wear and tear on the intervertebral discs. While genetics may play a role in degenerative disc disease, causing pain in the neck injury is the usual cause. (x)
- Pain from Bone Fractures
Bone fractures from degenerative disc disease also cause pain. Everyday movements and minor injuries can stress your intervertebral discs, causing tiny breaks in the discs’ outer walls. There are nerves in these walls, and any breaks near a nerve can cause pain. If the exterior wall breaks, the soft inner core can herniate (ooze out). A slipped or bulging disc can also press nerves and cause pain. (x)
- Pain from Nerve Root Inflammation
One of the most common places to experience herniated discs is in your lower back. In medical terms, the lower back, known as the lumbar region. Lumbar radiculitis is the inflammation of a nerve root in the lower back. Another potential problem in this area is lumbar nerve-root disorders. Pressure on nerve roots in your lower back causes this disorder. (x)
However, degenerated discs aren’t the only cause of nerve root disorders. Diabetes, tumors, infections such as shingles (herpes zoster) and tuberculosis are other potential causes. You should see a doctor to determine the underlying problem. (x)
- Pain from Lumbar Radiculopathy
Another cause of lower back pain is lumbar radiculopathy. Radiculitis and radiculopathy, though similar, are different. Radiculitis refers to inflammation in the nerve root, while radiculopathy refers to the effects that damage the nerve root, such as pain that radiates down into your legs. (x)
- Morning Pain and Stiffness
Back pain comes and goes, and it’s common to wake up with a stiff back. A natural way to ease early morning pain and stiffness is deep breathing and stretching while you’re still lying down. To rise with minimal discomfort, bend your knees, roll to the side, and then push yourself up using your arms. Sit tall and gently arch your back. Bend forward from the hips with one leg stretched farther forward on the floor and, keeping your back straight, straighten both legs at the same time.
- Cervical Myelopathy
Cervical myelopathy is a common degenerative spinal condition in your neck. Damage to the spinal cord, usually from compression of the cervical (neck) vertebrae, causes it. However, the disease is preventable, and you can live 70 years or longer without ever getting the disease (x).
- Facet Joints and Crepitus
Facet joints are the pointy parts of your spine that you can sometimes see when you curve your back. Their job is to help your back stay aligned. There are two on each vertebra, one on each side. Cracking in the lower back, also called crepitus, is very common and happens whenever the facet joints move in or out of their normal position. (x)
You may hear a crack or pop, and you also may feel grinding or pressure release, but it’s not usually painful; however, if you feel pain when your back cracks, talk to your doctor.
- Facet Arthropathy
Time and everyday movement may cause arthritis in your facet joints, also called facet arthropathy. The severity of facet arthropathy will vary from person to person. Unlike a herniated disc, the pain from facet arthropathy rarely radiates to other parts of the body. However, because these joints can swell, they may press on a few nerves in your body, referring to pain elsewhere. (x)
- Numbness and Tingling
Numbness and tingling in the limbs is a common sign that a disc is pinching your nerves. Pinched nerves may also cause muscle weakness. (x) Because nerves running down the legs originate in the spine, tingling in the knees (paresthesia) can be another symptom of degenerative disc disease. However, paresthesia may also occur with injury and other conditions, including tendonitis, diabetes, gout and lupus. (x) If tingling persists, talk to your doctor to determine its cause.
Pressure on nerves in the neck area can cause tingling in your neck or pain elsewhere — called referred pain. Tingling in the arm or hand or shoulder and pain radiating down your arm to the thumb often starts in the spine. (x)
Nerve compression in your neck from degenerative disc disease may cause cervicogenic headaches. The pain usually starts back of the head and may spread to the top of the skull and sometimes the temple. Pain behind the eyes is also typical. You may feel pain in the neck as well. Nausea, irritability, and concentration difficulties are also common symptoms of cervicogenic headaches. (x)
Degenerative Disc Disease Causes
Determining the causes of degenerative disc disease is not all that easy. The findings or suggestive reasons based on observation and research over the decades include:
As we age, many of us will experience degeneration in our intervertebral discs. According to a study published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 90 percent of people 50 and over have a form of the condition. (x) The condition only gets a label when degeneration causes you pain.
- Dry, Thin Intervertebral Discs
One of the most common causes of degenerative disc disease is the intervertebral discs drying out. These discs are like hard jelly donuts with tough, fibrous outer rings and soft cores. (x) When we’re young, they have lots of water in them, but as we age, they dry out. As they dry out, they get thinner. Thinning discs are less able to absorb shock, causing pain.
- Inflammation of the Body
If your body is susceptible to inflammation, you might be prone to degenerative disc disease. Extensive research and studies reported by The Royal Society states inflammation of the intervertebral disc occurs and can cause this condition, which is associated with pain. (x)
Treatments for degenerative disc disease are usually conservative and start with the basics — exercise, stretching and physical therapy. Some common treatments include:
- Over the Counter Medications
Doctors typically recommend some over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help. Or they may prescribe muscle relaxants and narcotics. (x)
As far as medications go, doctors often prescribe prednisone for arthritis. However, prednisone may cause many unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects, such as weight gain, bruising, osteoporosis, increased blood pressure, cholesterol levels and diabetes. (x)
- Chiropractic Care
Chiropractic manipulation or massage may provide relief for lower back pain without drugs or surgery. A study performed on a 66-year-old woman shows the promise of massage and chiropractic treatment, creating positive effects on your body. (x) Another study of both men and women between 19 and 63 years received chiropractic treatment with active manipulations being more effective in treating back pain and sciatica, radiating pain down either or both legs. (x)
- Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) can dull the pain temporarily. (x) The electrical current stimulates the nerves, and some patients feel less pain. The theory is two-fold. One, the electricity scrambles the normal pain signals, keeping them from registering in the brain. The other is the electrical stimulation produces natural painkillers known as endorphins. (x)
- Egoscue Method
Corrective exercises to improve postural alignment called the Egoscue Method, which is like physical therapy and chiropractic care. Developed in the 1970s, the potential benefits aligning your body, so it minimizes musculoskeletal pain, exercises targeting the neuromuscular system to enhance your body’s functional movement. Participants experience pain relief and can live an active lifestyle with no pain. (x)
- Steroid Injection
Your doctor may schedule you for an MRI or X-ray to check for bone and nerve damage, depending on your symptoms. They may then schedule you for a spinal steroid injection to decrease inflammation.
- Back Surgery
Surgery for degenerative disc disease is usually a last resort when other remedies don’t offer relief, though they are quite common. One surgical treatment for nerve pain in the back is burning the nerves in the spine. Surgeons will first numb the affected area and then insert a hollow needle containing a heated wire into your spine, burning the nerves causing the pain. (x) Surgery leads to more surgery when it comes to treating degenerative disc disease. It’s called failed back surgery syndrome. (x)
Alternative Approaches to Back Surgery
Another positive approach to address degenerative disc disease is to study all contributing factors to the condition and to use a stable alternative that includes integrative medicine. (x) Chinese or Oriental medicine with a holistic approach to your body’s organs, stress levels, acupuncture treatment, self-massage, exercise therapy and herbal medicine. Naturopathic treatment includes nutrition, palpation, herbal medicine, supplements, detoxification and anti-inflammatories. Homeopathic remedies are remedies for pain and relieving stress. Arnica Montana is a popular homeopathic treatment for morning stiffness, the intensity of pain and painful joints associated with degenerative disc disease. The homeopathic tablets cover a broad range of physical ailments, which can also benefit your body. (x)
Preventing Degenerative Disc Disease
Many people would prefer to prevent degenerative disc disease and herniated discs naturally (herniated discs can heal independently). A diet with nutrient-dense whole natural foods is essential to maintain a healthy spine. Staying hydrated will also help. Regular exercise will help keep your back strong, and gentle yoga can help improve your back’s flexibility. Good posturing is also key to preventing herniated discs.
Bone and Joint Health Supplements
Many supplements support joint health. The body naturally makes collagen, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), glucosamine and chondroitin, but it doesn’t produce as many of these compounds as it ages. Supplements can help. Bone broth, fish oil and capsaicin are all shown in clinical studies to ease joint inflammation. Traditional remedies for joint health include Boswellia serrata, willow bark extract, cat’s claw and rose hips.
If you plan to take supplements to ease degenerative disc disease symptoms, talk to your doctor first to determine whether they’re right for you. Also, for each supplement, you plan to take, ask your doctor for their dose guideline. Follow your doctor’s dose guidelines over the ones listed below. If you don’t have access to a doctor, follow dose guidelines on supplement packaging. Some common supplements include:
- Chondroitin Sulfate
Chondroitin sulfate is one of the most popular natural supplements for joint health. This compound is one of the significant components of cartilage, which breaks down as we age. The body makes chondroitin, but it makes less as we get older (x). The recommended daily dose is between 750 and 1,500 milligrams. It is best to divide these amounts into several smaller doses.
Glucosamine is another component of cartilage and present in joint fluid. Research has shown that it has anti-inflammatory properties and may even help regrow cartilage (x). For D-glucosamine HCL powder, the recommended dose is up to 1,000 milligrams three times daily.
Collagen is the most common type of protein in the body and is essential for healthy joints. Unfortunately, as we get older, we produce much less of it. Research has shown that collagen supplements can reduce inflammation in the joints and strengthen them. (x) Collagen supplements (bovine, porcine, chicken and fish) are often available as powders, and it is ideal for taking 2,500 milligrams two to four times per day.
- Willow Bark Extract
Health-care practitioners have used willow bark medicinally for thousands of years to relieve joint pain and inflammation. A study evaluated the efficacy of the herb used widely in Europe for low back pain. There were many pain-free patients, 27 of 65, during the last week of the study. Other factors played a role in the study, which determined that willow bark is valuable and safe for treating low back pain. (x) Willow bark extract contains active ingredients similar to aspirin and tannins, catechins, and flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, analgesic and immune-boosting properties. Take between 400 and 1,600 milligrams daily.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a compound with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties the body makes. (x) MSM can ease symptoms of arthritis and keep your joints healthy. Take between 1,000 and 1,300 milligrams four times per day.
- Boswellia Serrata
Boswellia serrata is a traditional Ayurvedic treatment that can help improve joint function. Its anti-inflammatory effects can help minimize pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. (x) Try taking 450 milligrams up to twice daily.
- Fish Oil
The anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may relieve arthritis symptoms and support heart and brain health. One study showed that taking 2.6 grams of omega-3s daily significantly improved patients’ symptoms with rheumatoid arthritis. (x) Take two capsules up to three times per day. Keep fish oil refrigerated and take with meals.
- Pine Bark Extract
- Cat’s Claw
Other Bone and Joint Health Supplements
Look into other supplements to help your bone and joint health, otherwise missed as reasonable solutions, though effective. Some to consider:
Found in spicy peppers, capsaicin has shown efficacy as an analgesic. (x) Capsaicin creams may ease joint and arthritis pain.
- Rose Hips
Rose hips are the edible fruit of the rosebush. Native Americans have used rose hips in traditional medicine for centuries. Studies have shown that rose hips, which have anti-inflammatory properties, can prevent specific proteins from degrading joint tissues. (x)
As mentioned earlier, Arnica Montana is a homeopathic approach to treating pain. Arnica, when taken orally and applied as a cream or gel, are effective measures based on several studies. A study using a gel applied twice daily had a success rate of 76% — as “good” and “fairly good” — will use it again. (x) As mentioned earlier, inflammation causes degenerative disc disease. An article supports the use of arnica for its anti-inflammatory attributes, selective inhibiting factors that cause inflammation. (x)
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The Bottom Line
Degenerative disc disease is a prevalent condition that affects many of us as we age. Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent its onset. Supplements such as collagen, glucosamine and chondroitin can help ease its painful symptoms and help you live a fuller life.
Looking for a quick fix to this condition may not happen, though the Egoscue Method helps relieve pain immediately by placing your body in a specific position to take the pressure off the spine.
Alternative methods besides surgery are wise decisions if you want a stable and long-lasting solution compared to back surgery. Surgery of the back leads to more back surgery called failed back surgery syndrome.
Talk to your doctor if you suspect you have degenerative disc disease to determine the best treatment plan for you.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.