Patients and doctors alike have the misconception that once the spine has degenerated - including disc degeneration, disc herniation and nerve damage -, you need surgery or forced to live with pain, numbness/weakness and organ dysfunction for the rest of your life. However, studies suggest that with specific chiropractic treatment protocols, the degenerative changes in the spine can actually be reversed. This has been documented in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine and proves to be a ground-breaking information because:
- Degenerative processes in the spine can be asymptomatic, only producing signs and symptoms when advanced. With chiropractic care, can we not only prevent degenerative diseases of the spine but we can also reverse them.
- The word degeneration used to be closely associated with old age. Today, this isn’t the case. Due to our modern lifestyles, degeneration is now prevalent and affecting teenagers worldwide (READ: Truths & Myths about Degeneration: Is It Really Due To Old Age? and The 7 Hours of Highly Sick Teenagers).
- The safety and effectiveness of chiropractic care is far superior to any other types of treatment for degenerative diseases of the spine (including surgery, medication and other forms of alternative care such as physiotherapy and acupuncture).
- Based on the above facts, it is not farfetched to suggest that chiropractic needs to be incorporated in everyone's lifestyles.
how intervertebral discs degenerate
Intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers between vertebras by keeping each vertebrae separated when pressure is loaded onto the spine. They also play a crucial role in protecting the spinal cord and nerves that run down the middle of the spine and intervertebral discs. But because discs are made of 88% water, an upright adult spine can lose up to 20mm of vertical height each day due to the loss of fluid from the spinal discs. The sleep cycle allows the unloaded discs to regain most (but not all), of their fluid and height by the re-absorption of fluid surrounding the discs.
Since all the fluid and disc height is not regained, by the age of 30 our spines become shorter and by the time we are 60 years old, it’s not uncommon to actually lose up to 2 inches of height due to the loss of disc fluid. When the discs lose their height, the nerves which exit between the vertebrae and send vital messages to your body systems become more likely to be compressed.
In fact, a mere loss of 12 percent in disc fluid content is documented to reduce the disc height by 50 percent! Furthermore, it has been noted that a loss of 1mm of height in cervical disc and 1.4 mm loss of height in the lumbar disc will cause the same amount of neurological compression and nerve encroachment equal to an 8-degree rotation (misalignment) of the spine. The maintenance of adequate disc heights is important, if people are to avoid chronic pain, numbness and tingling, loss of organ function and many other symptoms.
There are two main ways in which you can slow down the rate of disc degeneration:
#1 Proper Hydration
Hydration is essential for the nourishment, lubrication and function of all joint cartilages, tendons and ligaments. Proper hydration also aids to effectively deliver nutrients and eliminate wastes from intervertebral discs. If you are not properly hydrated, the body will first seek to pull water out of the "white tissues”, meaning the ligaments, discs, tendons and joints. Besides maintaining healthy spinal discs, drinking adequate amounts of water leads to many other health benefits, but most people fail to do so. Drinking water was my number one pick among the 7 Life Transforming Things You Can Do Every Day.
Proper motion of the spinal joints are crucial as it promotes imbibition of the discs (the process of the disc reabsorbing water). The spine has 24 different bones and they are all joints. They are designed to move in a certain way. Once the joints of the spine stops moving properly, it loses it’s ability to imbibe causing rapid dehydration and degeneration of the discs. This is one key reason why health experts say that "sitting is the new smoking." A sedentary lifestyle coupled with poor posture accelerates the rate of disc degeneration. Therefore in order to preserve the disc spaces, it's important that we adopt an active lifestyle. Getting up from the desk every hour or so for a purposeful walk around the office will make all the difference.
Good hydration and living an active lifestyle are simple yet life-changing activities that you can incorporate today. However they will NOT reverse the degeneration that have already taken place. To reverse degeneration, it takes a much more specific multi-modal approach.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Spine Degeneration
Degeneration of the spine happens to all of us, it is a normal part of life and aging. However degeneration is only normal when we wear out evenly. All 24 different spinal bones have the same age and go through the same life. Therefore, if you have certain segments that are degenerating faster than others, this can't be just due to old age.
One indigenous tribe in central India reported essentially zero reports of low back pain and showed very minor signs of degeneration as people aged (there are cultures in the world where back pain is non-existent). We suffer from accelerated and asymmetrical degeneration of the spine because we don't move. We don't drink enough water and most importantly, we never look after our posture and spine health. It's time to stop blaming our age for our health problems and take full responsibility.
Spine degeneration is a broad term and includes conditions such as: disc herniation (slipped disc), spinal stenosis and schmorl’s nodes. However, all forms of spine degeneration have one thing in common that many of them are asymptomatic. As we wrongly associate pain with health, many put a blind eye to their spine health because they don't feel pain. How many of you have really checked your spine in the past 12 months? Below are some of the most common signs and symptoms of spine degeneration:
- Asymptomatic (no symptoms)
- Localised or generalised pain/stiffness that persists
- Localised or generalised pain/stiffness without a specific mechanism of injury
- Pain that radiates away down to the thighs/legs or arms/hands
- Numbness/Tingling in the limbs
- Burning Pain
- Sensory changes
Chiropractic Treatment To Regenerate Disc Disease Of The Spine
Moving more and making sure that you are well hydrated are simple ways to try and prevent rapid degeneration of the spine. However, in order to actually reverse the degenerative changes, chiropractic care must be incorporated. A chiropractor’s job is to find and correct misalignments of the spine (subluxations). This is crucial as subluxations lead to improper joint motion, increased pressure on the discs and nerve interference, which in turn leads to rapid degeneration of the spine.
The normal curve (alignment) of the neck and low back is called the lordosis and they should curve backwards. Any misalignments out of this healthy normal alignment is known to put pressure on the nerves. A neurosurgeon, Alfred Brieg MD states that the “loss of cervical curve stretches the spinal cord 5 to 7cm and produces pathological tension.” Notice the restoration of the normal curve in both the neck and low back after corrective chiropractic care which involves chiropractic adjustments and traction exercises. These results are easily reproducible.
If the spine is not in the right alignment, the affected joints will lose their normal motion. This quickly leads to rapid degeneration of the discs forcing it to lose water. This makes chiropractic adjustments a vital component in the healing process. Motion allows discs to reabsorb fluid from its surroundings via imbibition. This is one of the reason why health practitioners prescribe swimming or yoga for many spine-related conditions. Motion is important! However once a joint of the spine stops moving, gross and general movements introduced by swimming and/or yoga is never enough to restore the joints back to normal. The normal function and motion of affected spinal joints can only be resuscitated by specific chiropractic adjustments. Aside from chiropractic adjustments, chiropractors may suggest the following exercises:
Swiss ball (exercise ball or physio ball) is a versatile exercise equipment used to help people with conditions such as low back pain. Many exercise ball programs work by creating controlled motion of the spine in order to nourish the discs. As discussed above, spinal motion helps nourish and regenerate the discs in the spine by increasing blood flow around the discs and allowing the water to flow in and out of the disc.
2. Wobble Chair
The wobble chair works on the same premise as the swiss ball but they are much more relevant for office workers. By providing the loading and unloading cycles to the discs, the discs are able to restore or maintain their fluid content despite working long hours sitting. Remember, sitting is the new smoking! A wobble chair is a great investment for all desk bound professionals.
Clinical Results Of Patients Suffering From Degenerative disc disease After Chiropractic Care
A group of patients were selected for a study that was featured in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine based on their medical history of lumbar herniated or bulging discs verified by previous MRI/CT scans, history of paraesthesia in one or both lower extremities, pain levels reported as a minimum of 8/10 and/or history of sciatica or other radicular findings. After undergoing the treatment protocol as mentioned above (chiropractic adjustments and exercises), all patients showed positive and statistically significant outcomes in radiographic disc heights, functional rating index, numeric pain rating, spirometry, and patient height. Here are a before and after x-ray finding presented in the study:
As you grow older, become more sedentary and develop advancing spinal and postural degenerative conditions, your spine will lose the normal alignment and segmental motion of the joints. Once this happens, the discs will rapidly lose its heights and cause nerve encroachment. Chronic pain syndromes and spine-related organ dysfunctions are completely avoidable. Exercise, move more, drink more water and most importantly, go and see a chiropractor.