Back pain caused by damage to the discs in your spine is commonly referred to as Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD). The name of this condition is misleading. First, DDD isn’t really a disease; it’s an expedient term for pain and mobility symptoms that we have unfortunately been taught result from the wear-and-tear of your vertebral discs. The other issue is the “degenerative” part. Degeneration will happen with age, but the symptoms might not. So, the degeneration refers to the actual breakdown of the discs, and not the worsening of symptoms. And since the symptoms do not correlate with the degree of degenerative change, it is likely that very little of anyone’s lower back pain actually comes from the visualized DDD.
Spinal discs are the soft tissue between each vertebrae that act as shock absorbers for your spine. The most common places on the spine we see DDD is in the cervical vertebrae (neck) and lumbar vertebrae (lower back). These are the parts of your spine that suffer the most abuse, with lifetimes of micro-injuries that damage those soft-tissue discs.
So, what happens to spinal discs over time to cause DDD? There are three main ways discs can wear, or be damaged, that are diagnosed as DDD:
- Disc thinning: Over time, your discs thin. Think of them as mattresses: after years of impact, the springs get sad and the mattress compresses. It no longer bounces back, and once it starts to deform, it continues quickly. This is exactly what happens with the discs in your spine. Over time, they lose their moisture and resilience, causing them to thin.
- Endplate erosion: There’s a cartilage band around each disc that holds the disc where it needs to be, retains moisture, and supplies nutrients to keep the tissue healthy. If this layer wears away, the disc will begin to degenerate by thinning, drying out, herniating or cracking.
- Herniated discs: A disc is referred to as herniated, ruptured or slipped if part of the disc’s soft tissue breaches the cartilage band that surrounds it.
People who have osteoarthritis or bone spurs are more likely to develop degenerative disc disease, perhaps from the same root cause.
Traditional Treatments for Back Pain caused by Disc Deformation
Contrary to what we have been taught to believe, most-times disc generation doesn’t result in any significant pain. Other times it contributes to more severe pain and limited mobility. Most of the time weakness, radiating pain, and numbness are related to fascia and muscle injuries of a lifetime, and more to the muscles of your buttocks than your lower back. Much of back pain therapy and surgical back pain treatment tries to treat the symptoms by removing the damage and not repairing the actual source of the pain. Most of the time the root cause of low back pain is more related to fascia injury involving the buttocks.
Western methods for treating lower back pain from DDD include:
- OTC pain medications and anti-inflammatories
- Opioids and muscle relaxers
- Cortisone shots
The Dangers of Traditional Back Pain Therapy
There are risks to all of these treatments, and none of them consistently treat DDD symptoms effectively. Over-the counter medications like NSAIDS and anti-inflammatories pose serious risks to vital organs over time, like the intestines and the kidneys. They also don’t “treat” anything; they just lessen your symptoms temporarily.
Opioids are another “treatment” that’s not actually treating anything, and they have extremely dangerous potential for addiction and/or overdose; the opioid epidemic has shown us that. Thankfully, as a result of the opioid epidemic, physicians are being more careful about who they prescribe opioids to and how much access they give their pain patients, dosage-wise. On the other hand, opiates that are appropriately prescribed are often the most effective and safest medications for treating pain.
Cortisone shots are administered at source points for pain – usually the damaged disc. It temporarily super-charges your body’s healing process at that site. But the keyword here is “temporarily.” As well, soft tissues that undergo long-term treatment with cortisone shots often end up becoming even weaker and more damaged over time. And, the pain they take away best is the inflammatory pain that comes from food you should have never eaten. When this effect wears off in about three months and you are still eating the food, pain comes back.
The surgical intervention for disc degeneration that’s causing lower back pain is a discectomy. This is where a surgeon either (1) trims the damaged part of the ruptured disc away, or (2) removes the entire damaged disc. Sometimes they’ll also reshape a small part of the vertebrae to better see the condition of the damaged disc. Discs can also be replaced with various spacer devices. Discectomies come with several risks: anesthesia complications, it might not relieve pain symptoms, damaging the spinal cord, and infection. And the lower back pain rarely comes from the disc. How do you know and what do you believe? Rule #3 of the Blatman 5 Rules: You can only believe what you can touch and feel. Where are you most tender, your lower back muscles or your butt?
How do Stem Cells Treat Back Pain?
Doctors who practice in regenerative medicine have recently started treating lower back pain with stem cell injections. This holistic method of treating back pain has great potential for actually healing, improving, or slowing DDD. As well, successful stem cell therapy for back pain should relieve any adverse symptoms of degenerative disc disease. With minimal risks and minimal invasiveness, regimens of stem cell injections in patients with lower back pain are proving somewhat effective at relieving symptoms and healing pain sources.
Stem cell injections are comprised of a fluid made of a concentration of stem cells, usually sourced from placenta and umbilical parts from a healthy C-section newborn whose mother has agreed to donate the tissue. Theory of stem cell therapy for back pain is that the injected stem cells will help your injured parts repair and heal. Subsequently, pain symptoms should abate as the disc is repaired. The potential of stem cells as a therapy for back pain, as well as knee pain, musician’s injuries, and joint pain, is promising if properly optimized.