Degenerative Disc Disease

Unfortunately, degenerative disc disease is something that will happen to all of us.  Perhaps the question is to what extent.  Like many things in our body, the intervertebral discs wear down with time and age.  For some, they will generate pain while for others it may not pose a problem.   

A recent paper I reviewed reminded me of some of the functions of the different areas of the intervertebral disc and I thought some of it may be interesting for our readers.

The nucleus pulposus is the gel centre of our intervertebral disc. This jelly centre (like the jelly in a donut) is surrounded by a cartilage crust (like the crust of a donut).  What the researchers have figured out is that the jelly centre of the disc is primarily responsible for dealing with the compressive loads we place on the spine.  For example, our body weight stacking down on the disc is primarily dealt with by this jelly in the middle.  Furthermore, when compressed, it bulges outward a little to compress against the surrounding cartilage (the crust of the disc).  This is what the outer cartilage needs to be happy.  Unfortunately over time, when the jelly in the middle starts to degenerate and erode, the entire disc has a poorer ability to withstand compression and this task gets placed on the outer cartilage fibres (the crust of the jelly donut). In addition, the outer crust doesn’t get the outward tension that it used to get from the healthy jelly in the middle.  As a result, we get the start of the degenerative process that seems to snowball.  Seem complicated?  Perhaps it is.

A simpler concept to understand is that the intervertebral disc seems to inflame when the degenerative process takes hold.  Although some authors propose that inflammation is a good thing, I disagree.  Prolonged, chronic inflammation has been shown to aggravate various nerve structures and create the symptoms of “sciatica”.  Hence, I usually recommend that people with degenerative disc disease ice their lower backs, keep moving (brisk walking) and don’t over stretch the area when particularly inflamed.  Otherwise, the cells within the inflammatory fluid will persist and continue to aggravate the nerves and cause that awful burning, stinging, aching, pins and needles, numb, tingly pain associated with sciatic irritation.

Experiencing back pain?  Sciatic pain?  Give our Burlington Chiropractic and Physiotherapy clinic a call…we can help!