Degenerative Disc Disease

People may not always have symptoms of a problem, so it is important to visit a chiropractor to evaluate your spine and correct any misalignments to help stop the progression of degenerative disc disease.

What is degenerative disc disease?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: Degenerative disc disease is like a series of things that they’ll look at on the spine or in any joint that has a disc. And basically, when we look at a typical joint of the spine, we have the body of one vertebrae above, and then there’s the body of another vertebrae below. And they stack up on top of each other and they’re separated by a disc.

Now, these vertebrae are designed to freely move, because our spine affords us mobility. It allows us to bend, twist and turn. Rather than it be one solid piece of bone, which would never degenerate, it’s broken up into segments to afford us mobility. Now, anything that moves has the potential to get friction. That’s why we put motor oil in our car engine to keep it lubricated so it doesn’t wear out.

Degenerative disc disease is just like wearing out of parts. When you have aberrant mechanics, if things are not moving perfectly or not lining up the way they should, it’ll create extra friction and then that’ll create rubbing, and then you’ll start to see bone spurs. You’ll see thinning of the discs. You’ll see the joints start to get a brighter white as your body lays down more calcium to try and protect the joints. So, when things are out of alignment, just like if the front end of my car was out of alignment and I drove the car fast and I drove it a lot, it would start to wear the tires funny. This is when the joints start to wear out and show signs of wear and tear. So, you’ll see decreased disc space, bone spurring, and you’ll see like a chalky white appearance where the body’s laying down extra calcium. So that’s essentially what it is, and it usually arises from aberrant mechanics or misalignment or what we call subluxation degeneration.

Are there any symptoms of degenerative disc disease? How would someone know if they are suffering from it?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: Well, pain and stiffness are the most common, but it doesn’t have to be present. One of the things that I noticed early on in my career is we would take x-rays and maybe I would take an x-ray of a 70-year-old guy. I would see all kinds of evidence of degenerative disc disease, and this guy would have very little pain. I could take another x-ray of someone in their twenties and the x-ray would be perfectly clean, the disc spaces are perfect, not a single bone spur, and they can be in intractable pain.

So, understanding that the map isn’t always the territory, but symptoms do often arise, and they’re generally that stiff achy feeling that usually is worse in the morning when they first get out of bed. And then once they start moving much like a car warms up, the pain will kind of subside and go away. And then maybe at the end of the day, they’ll start to notice it again.

Typically, it’ll be in any joint. It can happen in the spine. It can happen in the knee. You can get arthritic change or degenerative change in the elbow, so it can happen in any joint and the best way really to kind of overcome that is to see a chiropractor and to diagnose it. Very often, x-ray is used, which is a great tool because you can actually see the spine and see the degenerative changes that would appear.

So that’s pretty much what DDD, or degenerative disc disease is. It’s basically the wear and tear on the spine that happens over time.

What are some common causes of degenerative disc disease and what can people do to help prevent getting it?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: Those are really good questions. The common causes again are poor alignment, poor posture, stress, accidents, falls, sitting at your desk improperly, not getting good nutrition so the joints don’t have proper nutrition. They need certain things. The joints and bones need calcium to stay healthy. They need glucosamine and chondroitin, which are great supplements to keep the joints healthy. So, all those things will keep the cartilage healthy.

The primary causes again, are the same things that cause the misalignments in the spine, stress, tension, poor posture, accidents, falls. All of those things can create misalignments, and then if the misalignment isn’t cleared, you’ll see degenerative change on that joint, especially if it’s there long enough.

What type of treatments or therapies are used by chiropractors to help someone with degenerative disc disease?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: Typically, a chiropractor’s going to be treating the vertebral subluxation or managing the vertebral subluxation is the misalignment. A vertebral subluxation is where the vertebrae gets misaligned, it gets fixed or stuck in that abnormal position. Usually because of its close association to where the nerves are, when the vertebrae misalign, it pinches or irritates the nerve, and that can cause nerve interference which can cause a host of different problems besides pain and discomfort.

What a chiropractor does is we use chiropractic adjustments to break up the fixation that’s holding that vertebrae in that misaligned position to allow your body to reposition it. And that will smooth out the mechanics and get the pressure and the irritation off the bones and the nerves and allow normal mechanics to be restored. Then everything moves smoothly and you’re not going to see that degeneration.

Just like if I hit a pothole with my car and threw the front end out of alignment, if I keep driving the car, I’ll wear the tire funny. But if all I did was after that pothole, I just went to the mechanic and got the front end aligned, I probably wouldn’t be buying new tires.

So, caring for your spine preemptively, seeing your chiropractor periodically, I recommend usually about twice a month, whether you’re symptomatic or not, just to keep everything in good alignment, keep pressure off the nerves and allow the body to function optimally.

Is it possible to reverse degenerative disc disease and restore a healthy spine? Or is this a condition for life?

Dr. Gregg Rubinstein: It’s a little bit of both. You can reverse the process a little bit. Anything the body lays down like a bone spur or anything like any damage to cartilage, usually the body is pretty good at repairing itself. That’s how the body heals, it replaces damaged cells with healthy new ones, and that all happens on the auspice of the nerve system. So, making sure your nerve system is clear and there’s no subluxation in the spine, is also going to be very important.

So, by managing those subluxations and improving the alignment, you can certainly slow it down and prevent it from advancing. And in some cases, the body can resorb some of those spurs and it can actually get a little bit better. But at the very least when I go into a consultation and explain it to patients, I tell them at the very least, we can stop it from progressing and make sure it doesn’t get worse than it already is.

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To speak with Dr. Gregg Rubinstein, visit or call (212) 977-7094 to schedule an appointment.

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