The Back Place Blog

July 25, 2008

The disease that’s not a disease

This was news to me: Degenerative disc disease (DDD) isn’t a disease at all, but rather a part of the normal aging of the spine. (So why do they call it a disease, anyway? More bad press for aging! Why couldn’t it be termed Normal Disc Development or something more positive-neutral like that?)

DDD is one of the most common causes of back and neck pain, and also one of the most misunderstood. What’s happening, according to experts at and, is that the discs (the pillow-like pads between the bones) start losing their cushioning. The collagen structure of the outer portion of your disc—the annulus fibrosus—weakens. The degenerative process also affects the water content in your discs. With DDD, the water-attracting molecules in your discs decrease, making your discs become more stiff and rigid, which restricts movement.

Supportive gear
DDD in the lumbar area can trigger chronic or acute low back pain that worsens when sitting, lifting, bending or twisting. Pain is lessened when walking, running, lying down or just changing positions. If you’re dealing with DDD pain, many experts recommend the McKenzie Method, developed by Robin McKenzie. And McKenzie himself recommends postural supports, stating: “A poor sitting posture will frequently enhance and always perpetuate the problems in patients suffering from low back pain.” He goes on to recommend the use of a back rest support to help maintain the lumbar lordosis and prevent sitting strain, according to Kim Christensen, D.C., D.A.C.R.B., C.C.S.P. “The use of external supports to reduce excessive biomechanical forces on the lumbar spine is a significant treatment approach, [and] it is one which is frequently overlooked by practitioners,” writes Christensen. “Postural supports for sitting (postural back rests or ischial lifts for chairs and car seats), standing (such as custom foot orthotics and heel lifts) and sleeping (mattresses and pillows) can greatly assist in the management of lumbar spine conditions.”

So, while your physical therapist may recommend specific exercises and stretches for DDD, don’t overlook the relief that a well-designed pillow or a comfortable therapeutic chair cushion can offer.

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