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3 Ways to Reduce Your Risk for Degenerative Disk Disease

Are you currently in a committed relationship with your couch? Do you spend more time hunched over your laptop than standing upright? If so, you might be unknowingly walking down the increasingly common path of degenerative disc disease (DDD). So, grab a seat fellow desk dwellers – preferably one with lumbar support – while we give you the spine-saving rundown.

As we navigate day-to-day life, our spines bear the brunt of our adventures, mishaps, and, let's be honest, questionable dance moves. But just because we're all destined to become seasoned veterans of the "snap, crackle, pop" club doesn't mean we have to take it lying down (pun totally intended). But before we share 3 simple ways to reduce your risk, let’s find out what DDD is.

What is Degenerative Disk Disease?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a condition characterised by the breakdown of the intervertebral discs, which are the soft, gel-like cushions located between the vertebrae of the spine. These discs play a crucial role in providing support, flexibility, and shock absorption to the spine, allowing for smooth movement and preventing the vertebrae from rubbing against each other.

The intervertebral discs consist of a tough outer layer called the annulus fibrosus and a soft, gel-like centre called the nucleus pulposus. With age and wear and tear, these discs can degenerate, leading to changes in their structure and function. Several factors contribute to the development of DDD, including:

Age: Degenerative changes in the spine are a natural part of the ageing process. As people grow older, the intervertebral discs gradually lose their water content, making them less hydrated and more prone to degeneration. This process can result in a reduction in disc height, stiffness, and decreased shock-absorbing capacity. 

Repetitive Stress and Overuse: Activities or occupations that involve repetitive movements, heavy lifting, or prolonged sitting can contribute to the wear and tear of the intervertebral discs over time. Repetitive stress and mechanical loading can accelerate disc degeneration and lead to structural changes, such as disc herniation or bulging. 

Genetics: Genetics can play a significant role in predisposing individuals to degenerative disc disease. Certain genetic factors can influence the composition and integrity of the intervertebral discs, making some people more susceptible to disc degeneration than others. Family history of DDD or other spinal conditions may increase the risk of developing the condition. 

Poor Posture and Spinal Alignment: Improper spinal alignment, poor posture, and spinal imbalances can place excessive stress on the intervertebral discs, leading to accelerated degeneration. Activities such as slouching, hunching over electronic devices, or carrying heavy loads with poor body mechanics can contribute to spinal misalignment and increase the risk of DDD.

Obesity and Sedentary Lifestyle: Excess body weight and a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to the development and progression of DDD. Obesity can increase the mechanical load on the spine, leading to increased pressure on the intervertebral discs and accelerated degeneration. Additionally, a lack of physical activity and exercise can result in muscle weakness, decreased flexibility, and poor spinal health.

Degenerative disc disease can cause a range of symptoms, including back pain, neck pain, stiffness, muscle weakness, numbness or tingling sensations, and radiating pain that travels into the arms or legs. Treatment for DDD typically focuses on relieving symptoms, improving spinal function, and preventing further degeneration. This may include conservative measures such as physical therapy, exercise, pain management strategies, and lifestyle modifications, as well as surgical intervention in severe cases.

Is DDD Preventable?

While DDD is a common condition – particularly as we age – it is not necessarily inevitable for everyone. The prevalence of DDD increases with age, and it is considered a natural part of the ageing process. However, not everyone will experience symptomatic DDD or require treatment for it. Research suggests that by the age of 50, the majority of adults will have some degree of disc degeneration, although not all will experience symptoms. As people age, the intervertebral discs gradually lose their water content, become less hydrated, and may develop structural changes such as tears, fissures, or herniations. These degenerative changes can lead to symptoms such as back pain, neck pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility in some individuals. While ageing is a primary risk factor for DDD, other factors can also contribute to its development or progression. These factors include genetics, lifestyle habits, occupational factors, spinal injuries, obesity, and certain medical conditions. For example, individuals with a family history of DDD or other spinal disorders may be at a higher risk of developing the condition. Additionally, lifestyle factors such as smoking, poor posture, lack of exercise, and excessive mechanical loading of the spine can accelerate disc degeneration and increase the risk of symptomatic DDD. However, adopting healthy lifestyle habits, maintaining a healthy weight, practicing good posture, staying physically active, and avoiding activities that place excessive stress on the spine can help reduce the risk of developing DDD or experiencing debilitating symptoms – and we’re here to show you what that entails. 

Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet 

Chronic inflammation is a condition characterised by long-term, low-grade inflammation in the body. While acute inflammation is a natural response to injury or infection and plays a crucial role in the healing process, chronic inflammation can be harmful and contribute to various health issues, including degenerative disc disease (DDD). Here's how chronic inflammation may be linked to DDD:

Increased Degradation of Intervertebral Discs: Chronic inflammation can lead to the breakdown of collagen and other structural components within the intervertebral discs. These discs act as cushions between the vertebrae in the spine, providing support and flexibility. When inflammation persists, it can accelerate the degradation of these discs, leading to DDD. Inflammatory cytokines can promote the breakdown of collagen and contribute to disc degeneration.

Impaired Nutrient Delivery: Chronic inflammation can disrupt the normal transport of nutrients to the intervertebral discs. Adequate blood flow is essential for delivering oxygen and nutrients to the discs, supporting their health and function. However, chronic inflammation can compromise blood vessel integrity and reduce blood flow to the affected area. As a result, the discs may receive fewer nutrients, hindering their ability to repair and maintain optimal structure and function. 

Promotion of Fibrosis and Scar Tissue Formation: Prolonged inflammation can stimulate the production of fibrous tissue and scar formation within the intervertebral discs. While the body's natural response to injury is to form scar tissue to aid in healing, excessive or prolonged inflammation can lead to the accumulation of fibrotic tissue within the discs. This fibrosis can alter the biomechanical properties of the discs, making them more susceptible to degeneration and contributing to the development of DDD.

Activation of Inflammatory Pathways: Chronic inflammation can activate various inflammatory pathways within the body, including the nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB) pathway and the cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) pathway. These pathways play a role in mediating the inflammatory response and can contribute to tissue damage and degeneration when dysregulated. In the context of DDD, the activation of these inflammatory pathways can exacerbate disc degeneration and contribute to ongoing pain and dysfunction.

That’s why adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can help mitigate inflammation throughout the body, including in the spine. Focus on consuming foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. These foods help combat oxidative stress and reduce inflammation. Additionally, cutting out added sugars and processed foods can help reduce inflammation and promote overall health. Incorporating omega-3 fatty acids from sources like fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts can also have anti-inflammatory effects. 

Ensure Adequate Vitamin D Levels

Research has shown a correlation between low vitamin D levels and an increased risk of DDD. Vitamin D plays a crucial role in bone health, including the discs in the spine. Aim to get regular sun exposure, as sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D. Additionally, consider incorporating vitamin D-rich foods into your diet, such as fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and egg yolks. In cases where vitamin D deficiency is identified, supplementation may be necessary under the guidance of a healthcare professional. 

Get Your Exercise

Tie those joggers up and force yourself out the door because engaging in regular exercise can help strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, improve flexibility, and promote overall spinal health. The result? A lower risk for DDD – and a slowed progression for those with the condition. Low-impact exercises such as walking, swimming, and yoga can be particularly beneficial for individuals with degenerative disc disease. These activities help increase blood flow to the spine, deliver essential nutrients to the discs, and promote healing. Strength training exercises targeting the core muscles can also provide stability to the spine and reduce the risk of injury. However, it's essential to consult with a healthcare provider or physical therapist before starting any new exercise regimen, especially if you have pre-existing back pain or medical conditions.

Here are some of the best forms of exercise for promoting spinal health and mitigating the risk of DDD: 

Core Strengthening Exercises: Strengthening the muscles that support the spine, particularly the core muscles, can help alleviate pressure on the intervertebral discs and improve spinal stability. Core exercises target muscles such as the abdominals, obliques, and lower back muscles. Examples of core strengthening exercises include plank variations, bridges, bird dogs, and abdominal crunches. These exercises help improve posture, reduce spinal imbalances, and provide support for the spine, which can help prevent excessive wear and tear on the intervertebral discs. 

Low-Impact Aerobic Exercise: Engaging in low-impact aerobic activities, such as walking, swimming, cycling, or using an elliptical machine, can help improve cardiovascular fitness without placing undue stress on the spine. These activities promote blood flow to the spine, which supports nutrient delivery to the intervertebral discs and enhances their overall health. Additionally, aerobic exercise helps maintain a healthy weight and reduces the risk of obesity, which is a risk factor for DDD.

Flexibility and Mobility Exercises: Incorporating flexibility and mobility exercises into your routine can help maintain joint range of motion and prevent stiffness in the spine. Stretching exercises that target the muscles surrounding the spine, such as the hamstrings, hip flexors, and back extensors, can help alleviate tension and improve flexibility. Yoga and Pilates are excellent forms of exercise that emphasise both flexibility and core strength, making them particularly beneficial for spinal health.

Posture Correction Exercises: Poor posture can contribute to spinal misalignment and increase the risk of DDD. Performing exercises that focus on improving posture and spinal alignment can help reduce strain on the intervertebral discs and prevent excessive wear and tear. Exercises that strengthen the muscles of the upper back, neck, and shoulders, such as rows, shoulder blade squeezes, and chin tucks, can help counteract the effects of prolonged sitting and slouching.

Functional Movement Patterns: Functional exercises that mimic everyday movements can help improve overall functional capacity and reduce the risk of injury to the spine. Examples of functional exercises include squats, lunges, deadlifts, and overhead presses. These exercises engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously and promote coordination, stability, and balance, which are essential for spinal health and injury prevention. 

By implementing these strategies, you can take proactive steps to reduce inflammation, support spinal health, and potentially lower the risk of degenerative disc bulging or slow its progression. But it's essential to remember that individual responses may vary, and consulting with a healthcare professional is advised for personalised recommendations and treatment options.

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