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Thursday, June 19, 2008 - Degenerative Disc Disease Is Not A Life Sentence

VINELAND, NJ (June 19) – Many people diagnosed with degenerative disc disease are left wondering exactly what this diagnosis means. So what is degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is actually not a disease, but rather a degenerative condition that at times can produce back pain.  And while the term “degenerative” implies that it will worsen with age, the associated pain usually does not get worse.  DDD varies in its nature and severity.  And it’s actually quite common.  In fact, MRI scans reveal degenerative disc disease in up to 30 percent of young, healthy adults.

A disc is the cartilage that lies between the bony vertebral bodies of the spine.  The lumbar discs of the lower spine are particularly susceptible to degeneration.  A lumbar disc is designed to resist terrific forces, functioning as a shock absorber between vertebrae, yet it is also very mobile.

Disc degeneration is part of the natural process of aging.  Discs lose their water content and degenerate.  Also, the outer lining of the disc has nerve fibers, so any tear in this lining can be quite painful.  Some people can identify a specific event, such as a fall or a sudden twisting motion, before the onset of pain.  These episodes may bring to light an already degenerating disc.  Others have jobs or leisure activities, like golf, that put repeated strain on the back.  But most can blame their bad discs on genetics.

For reasons as yet unknown, some people experience very little pain from these degenerative changes.  For many, however, the pain is quite real.  The good news is that the incidence of pain actually declines as we age.  A fully degenerated disc no longer has any inflammatory proteins, which can cause pain, and usually collapses into a stable position.  While many people over 60 have degenerated discs, it is highly uncommon for them to have symptoms.

That may be little comfort to the 35-year-old assembly line worker with continuous low back pain.

There are many treatment options to help our young worker manage his/or her pain and maintain their function now, before the natural process brings sweet relief.  They include anti-inflammatory medications; bracing; in some cases, surgery; bed rest for acute episodes, or “flare-ups;” and physical therapy.  Physical therapy can be beneficial, as it teaches people the correct way to use their backs.  Abdominal and trunk strengthening can help prevent and/or alleviate future pain and give support to a structurally unsound spine.  Stretching exercises for certain muscle groups can help relieve some of the stress on the lower lumbar discs. 

LifeSpine trained Physical Therapists at SJH RehabCare also instruct people in how to maintain the neutral spine position (position in which the spine is most comfortable) through a series of movements that apply more and more degrees of freedom of motion.

Aerobic conditioning and exercise is an important defense, as well.  In large studies, it has been shown that individuals who are well conditioned have less pain, possibly due to the positive nutritional effects of endurance exercises.

LifeSpine at SJH RehabCare provides comprehensive treatment of the lower spine and education for people with degenerative disc disease and other low back problems, including muscle strain or overuse injuries, ruptured/herniated discs, pinched nerves, and arthritis.  For more information, on the LifeSpine program at
SJH RehabCare, contact any of our locations. 

SJH Vineland Health Center
1038 E. Chestnut Avenue Ste 260
Vineland     
(856) 507-8585

SJH Bridgeton Health Center
333 Irving Avenue
Bridgeton                          
(856) 575-4585

SJH Elmer Hospital
501 W. Front Street
Elmer                                             
(856) 363-1585

SJH Sports RehabCare
1430 W. Sherman Avenue
Vineland                                    
(856) 641-7875

SJH is a nonprofit, integrated health care system, providing access to a continuum of health services. SJH provides hospital services, numerous community health clinics, home health services, and specialty services, which serve the medical and health care needs of Southern New Jersey residents.