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Degenerative Disc Disease: How Common Is It? Should I Be Worried?

by Dr. Cullen Fahey, DC, NKT

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Between the vertebrae in your spine there is a jelly donut type structure called an intervertebral disc.

The role of this disc is to act as a shock absorber, create flexibility in the spine, as well as create space between the vertebrae to make room for the nerve roots that exit at each level. As we age, these soft discs dehydrate and shrink which is what we call degenerative disc disease (DDD). As that disc shortens this creates instability in the region so the body takes the liberty of stabilizing it for you by creating osteophytes, as well as leaves you more susceptible to disc bulges and herniations.

As we age, discs dehydrate and shrink, which is what we call degenerative disc disease (DDD).

So how common is this degeneration of the spine?

DDD is a natural part of aging but you don’t necessarily need to be elderly to have it. A study of 3,110 individuals showed that by 20 years old 37% of this population already showed signs of disc degeneration; this increased to 96% in 80 year olds¹. This goes to show that almost EVERYONE ends up with DDD.

This process of degeneration is an inevitable part of life, but is it really something I need to worry about?

-------Sort of.

As with many other conditions, there are varying levels of severity.

Let’s start with what a severe case can look like. As we mentioned earlier, the disc creates room for nerve roots that exit at each level of the spine. As the disc becomes shorter and more rigid the vertebrae can develop osteophytes, and be prone to herniations, which leaves less room for the exiting nerve root. [Hence, a "pinched" nerve]

If this happens, then you could possibly notice symptoms of radiating pain down an arm or leg, decreased sensation on the skin, or muscle weakness. If you feel any of those symptoms then you should get checked out by a provider right away to make sure the symptoms don’t progress or have lasting complications.

As the disc becomes more rigid or herniates, you may notice radiating pain down an arm or leg, decreased sensation on the skin, or muscle weakness. [See a provider right away!]

Now let’s look at what DDD more commonly shows. Between the vertebrae you’ll see a little less space and possibly some minor osteophytes or vertebral endplate roughness. This is listed as a mild to moderate degenerative disc. You MAY feel some ache in the region or increased stiffness but overall you probably have no idea you have it.

Remember that study we discussed before about the prevalence of disc degeneration in over 3,000 people? .....

That systematic review was done with all patients that were ASYMPTOMATIC! This means that while odds are you will end up with thinning and drying out discs, there is no guarantee that you’re going to feel pain. In fact, you most likely WON’T have pain.

I want to emphasize that YOU ARE NOT YOUR IMAGE! Many times when you receive an MRI or x-ray due to injury, the report may mention that you have disc degeneration. This is often an incidental finding that would not have been found if you didn’t get imaging for something else. Regardless, that 'diagnosis' comes to awareness. In this situation, you may start to get back or neck pain right away or become over-protective of the spine. At that point your BRAIN is creating your pain, not your body.

How do I prevent or reduce the rate of degeneration?

Limit strain on the spine by strengthening supporting structures. Having a strong back and core, as well as proper movement mechanics, can help stabilize and protect the spine.

Motion is lotion. Make sure to increase activity. A sedentary lifestyle is one of the most harmful risk factors for a body (and mind). A phenomenal movement modality for joint health is controlled articular rotations (CARs). See Doctor Rasmussen for a very individualized routine.

Be at an optimum weight to reduce extra and unnecessary wear and tear on the joints that are supporting your body.

The GOLDEN question: How do I treat it?

Much of the treatment of DDD focuses on slowing the progression once it is diagnosed and focusing on the preventative measures described above. The majority of treatments for DDD center on the presentation and symptoms. Targeted and global physical therapy and exercise, massage, traction, and chiropractic treatment are all viable options for those who suffer from this condition.

Bottomline: We believe in treating the symptoms and the root cause, not the diagnosis. The adjustment helps with pain and movement temporarily, but for long term benefit it must be combined with advanced intervention such as movement-based rehabilitation or active release. We understand this need at The Facility and ensure you get both manual manipulation PLUS movement-based care.


The best part of chiropractic is it gives you a neurological window to MOVE. If you no longer have pain or stiffness, then you have the ability to do rehabilitative exercises and get stronger.

This is how you progress from dependence on a practitioner that makes you feel better to having the freedom of helping yourself.

Here are a few things we can address....

• Appetite/digestion

• Metabolism

• Chronic pain

• Inflammation, and other immune responses

• Sleep

• Mood

• Learning/memory

• Muscle formation

• Liver function

• Stress

• Motor control

• Reproductive system function

• Bone remodeling/growth

• Skin

• Nerve function

We believe in whole-body healing from a root cause perspective. You are not your pain. You are not your condition.


Functional Medicine is rooted in daily lifestyle change that builds a healthy foundation. This foundation of good nutrition, an active mind & body, and proper sleep & recovery allows us to face challenges that inevitably come up in our modern world. Be it a virus, a stressor, or a physical challenge: we can weather it with minimal impact.

The time to build and solidify that foundation is now. (And you aren't meant to do it alone). We look at your unique biology (through functional lab testing) and support your habits (through nutritional guidance, mindfulness training, and physical medicine) to help you achieve a resilient state.

Maybe you need to step up one area of your life--> Book an online appointment!

We've all got the time to face it. Need more direction? Reach out! We'll get you on the right path.


Brinjikji, W., Luetmer, P., Comstock, B., Bresnahan, B., Chen, L., Deyo, R., . . . Jarvik, J. (2014). Systematic Literature Review of Imaging Features of Spinal Degeneration in Asymptomatic Populations. American Journal of Neuroradiology,36(4), 811-816. doi:10.3174/ajnr.a4173



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Dr. Mitchell Rasmussen - Doctor of Chiro
Kate Daugherty - Nutritionist - Function
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