Let’s start by discussing what a spinal disc is, and what it does (or is supposed to do). Your spinal discs are the
cushions between the spinal bones. They are composed of fibrocartilage, and have a tough outer layer and a softer inner core. A healthy disc creates space between the vertebrae, allowing for the spinal nerves to exit easily between the bones. Healthy discs also provide shock absorption, and allow for motion in your spine.
Let’s look at several common types of disc problems, the factors that can lead to these problems, and the most effective forms of treatment:
Injury to the discs of the lower back can be due to improper lifting of a heavy object, or a sudden force, such as in a car accident. The discs in the neck are most often injured as a result of a whiplash-type motion or a compression-type of force, such as a head-on collision in football. The outer layer of the disc can be damaged to the point where the inner core balloons out but is still contained (a bulging disc), or torn to the point where the inner core escapes outside of the disc (a herniated disc).
Most disc injuries can be treated non-surgically. I use several approaches, depending upon the severity of the injury. For bulging discs, gentle spinal distraction (elongation) can be very helpful. We have a special mechanical table that helps me accomplish this. The distraction creates a negative pressure within the disc, pulling the bulging portion back towards its normal dimension. Some type of elastic support belt is often helpful as well, as it counteracts gravity, and supports the area while the injured disc gradually heals. Herniated discs require a longer rest and support period before motion is gradually re-introduced to the affected joints. I have been very impressed with the results of “cold” or “therapeutic” laser applied to the injured tissues as well. I find that this speeds the healing process, helps with inflammation, and has a sedative effect on the nerves in the area. Specific stretches, strengthening exercises, and losing excess body weight will also help minimize stress to your discs.
Degenerative discs are present to varying degrees in most people over the age of 40. They often go hand in hand with arthritis of the spine. They may or may not be painful. Although they can be the result of gradual wear and tear, I most often find degenerative discs in areas of the spine that have been injured... Commonly in the lower neck and lower back. And while degenerative changes are not usually reversible, I have found it very helpful to restore normal motion and alignment to the affected areas of the spine through chiropractic treatments. I also counsel my patients about exercise and stretches they can do at home or at the gym, and about reducing bodyweight... Which will reduce the effects of gravity and stress on the affected discs.