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What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative Disc Disease (also referred to as DDD) is a commonly used medical term to describe what are mostly natural changes in the spine. To some degree, degenerative disc disease happens in most people once they hit 40 years old. It describes a host of changes in and around the spine joints as a result of lost disc height between the vertebrae.

 

Spinal Discs — Small but Essential

The spine is made up of a group of bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other with shock-absorbing discs between each bone. The discs are made of a fibrous outer layer and jelly-like inner layer. The jelly-like inner layer of the disc, called the nucleus pulposus, has no direct blood supply and needs alternating compressing (think: sitting) and decompressing (think: physical activity such as walking) forces to receive nutrients from the body and stay healthy.

The Degenerative Disc Process

As people age, the compressing forces tend to greatly outnumber the decompressing forces placed on the discs. The forces of gravity and muscle contractions press the vertebrae together and compress the discs. Years and years of pressure dehydrate the discs and they shrink and wear down. In this degenerative condition the discs’ ability to absorb shock is compromised.

As one part of the spine deteriorates, it directly affects nearby regions. Hence, as you lose disc height and function, the vertebral facet joints take on more of your body weight. Because these joints are constantly involved with spine motion, they wear down and lose cartilage, a process that is quickened as the joints take on additional weight loads—work that was intended for your discs. This process can result in osteophytes, commonly referred to as bone spurs, to form in and around the joints. When this degeneration causes pain, it’s referred to as degenerative disc disease or osteoarthritis.

diagram showing degenerative -disc disease in the spinal cord
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Degenerative Disc Disease — Disease or Natural Consequence of Aging?

Degenerative disc disease is not a disease in its truest sense—that is, a disorder of the body, such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Rather, it is a natural process that happens to most people. Factors that can affect the severity of this condition and the degree of pain include genetic predisposition, body weight, job, lifestyle, and physical activity.

What Causes Degenerative Disc Pain?

Pain can result from ongoing irritation caused by putting pressure on structures that have worn down. One common area for irritation, and therefore pain, is the facet joints. It’s important to note that just because you may have findings of “degenerative disc disease” on an MRI or X-ray, it doesn’t mean that the condition will cause pain or be the cause of the pain that you’re experiencing. Many people with findings of degenerative disc disease on their imaging studies have pain that’s caused by the muscles that surround the joints, not the joints themselves. When muscles are weak or out of balance they can tighten up, causing significant pain.

Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease

The good news: pain from degenerative disc disease can be treated very effectively at home with exercise and behavior modification. It is very rare for someone to need surgery or drugs for the pain caused by degenerative disc disease if they follow the right exercise plan.


Dr. Jeremy James

Written by Dr. Jeremy James. Dr. James founded and was director of the Aspen Club Back Institute in Aspen, Colorado, is the coauthor of the bestselling The Younger Next Year Back Book and earned his Doctor of Chiropractic from the University of Western States. Learn more about Dr. James here.

How BackForever Stops Pain Associated with Degenerative Disc Disease

As with any program involving physical activity, consult your physician prior to starting

If you have Degenerative Disc Disease, BackForever can relieve your pain and help you return to an active life. By building strength in key muscle groups that support the spine and changing the way you move, irritation on the affected areas in the spine can be reduced, resulting in significantly decreased or completely resolved pain.

BackForever uses a proprietary comprehensive self-assessment to produce online digital programs unique to each user’s specific condition and beginning fitness level. Your BackForever program is tailored to you and teaches you how to rebuild your body, end back pain, and change your life.

End the Pain – Start Today

I am a mother of four and love to exercise and stay active. Surprisingly, a lot of my exercises and activities were contributing to my recurring back problems. Now, following the BackForever program, I am almost always completely pain free. When I do have the occasional mild flare up, I know how to end it myself, thanks to the knowledge I got from Dr. James’s careful teaching. I am now more active than I was 10 years ago.

-Juliette Ferrell, Aspen, CO

I have had neck and back issues for years that have prevented me from doing simple movements such as lifting anything overhead. Certain movements would cause excruciating neck pain that would last for days. I dreaded these episodes so much I avoided these movements at all costs. Chiropractors and physical therapists would always provide me with short-term relief once I was in pain, but they never showed me how to stop these things on my own. Within days on Dr. James’s BackForever program, it helped me regain enough strength in my back and upper body to allow me to lift overhead without these episodes. In addition, my low back feels better than it has in many years. If I follow the program, I feel great.

-Richard Jelinek, NY, Co-Founder and CEO of Medicus Systems Corporation Mediflex Systems Corporation, Former Chairman of the Board of Knowledge Data Systems and Lifemark Corporation