• Dr. Brian Abelson DC.

Degenerative Disc Disease -DDD

Did you know that up to 85% of the population will experience low back pain throughout their lifetime (1). In fact, back pain is the second-leading reason that patients seek out the help of their medical practitioner.

Much of this type of pain is thought to be associated with the degenerative changes that take place in the spinal discs. It is estimated that the majority of the population has some degree of disc degeneration. Degenerative Disc Disease – DDD is a type of osteoarthritis of the spine.

Degenerative Disc Disease can occur at any location in the spine but is most common in the neck (cervical region) and the low back (lumbar region).

This decreased level of shock absorption by the DDD discs will also result in increased stress upon the facet joints (a gliding joint between each vertebra) of the spine.

Eventually this increased stress on the joints can cause facet joint degeneration (facet arthritis) – which in turn causes considerable pain, stiffness, and dysfunction.

Several other physiological changes can also occur due to the flattening of the discs. This includes the formation of bone spurs and the degeneration of the vertebral body (end plates). These degenerative changes may eventually cause increased pressure on the spinal nerve roots (nerves that exit from the spinal cord) and may be the reason for pain that radiates down the arm or leg (sciatica type pain).

More About Your Intervertebral Discs

It’s worth taking a minute to understand the important role that your intervertebral discs play in your daily motions and activities.

The intervertebral discs (fibro-cartilaginous cushions) make up to one-quarter of the spinal column's length, and function as the spine's shock absorption system. Intervertebral discs are designed to:

  • Absorb a huge amount of stress.

  • Act as a hinge, permitting increased range of motion and mobility in the spine.

  • Protect the spinal cord and its nerve roots.

The discs lie between, and are attached to, the vertebrae of the backbone. They form part of the front wall of the spinal canal.

The discs are made up of two primary layers:

  • Annulus Fibrosus – forms the outer edge of the disc and is a strong spherical structure made up of sheets of collagen fibres that are connected to the vertebral end plates (end of the vertebral bodies).

  • Nucleus Pulposus – forms the centre of the disc and is a gel- like material that is able to resist great compressive forces.

Since these intervertebral discs do NOT have a direct blood supply, they are dependent on the end-plates of the vertebral bodies to circulate essential nutrients. Any problems that cause a decrease in the normal exchange of fluids within this area can lead to a host of degenerative conditions.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease

Disc degeneration It is very interesting to note that what occurs during the normal aging to spinal discs is not that same as degenerative disc disease (DDD). Normal aging and DDD are different biological events!

Let's review some of the major differences between normal aging and DDD in relationship the intervertebral discs of the lumbar spine. Updated Material!

This recent information comes from RRS education (Dr. Shawn Thistle), Dr. Thistle, the founder of RRS education, teaches seminars covering the latest research on a wide variety of musculoskeletal topics. I highly recommend you attend one of his seminars if you are a practitioner.

Hallmarks of the normal aging of the intervertebral discs include:

  • No decrease in the intervertebral disc height,

  • A decrease in water content in the disc, considerable dehydration by age 40.

  • The fiber orientation of the disc (annular lamellae) becomes irregular, with formation of fissures.

  • Aging occurs from the inside out.

Hallmarks of the degenerative disc disease in the intervertebral discs includes:

  • Decreases in the intervertebral disc height, which decreased the disc's ability to absorb shock.

  • Pathological changes in the vertebral endplates. When these endplate changes are observed it an indication that DDD is present.

  • Changes from the outside in.

  • The discs become very stiff/weakened, with a impaired load bearing capacity.

  • Fissures and tears on the outside of the disc (Annulus Fibrous) moving inward, this enables ingrowth of nerves and blood vessels. This ingrowth creates generator of pain.

  • Degenerative Discs when loaded lose fluid quicker than aging discs, consequently lose disc height, and a decreased ability to bear loads.

Note: Cervical Disc are common. In the 2015 study (Nakashima et al 2015) 1211 healthy volunteers between the ages of 20 to 70 were examined by MRI for cervical disc degeneration. The results showed that 90% of those examined had bulging discs. What was interesting was that 75% of those in their 20's also had disc bulges.

Management of Degenerative Disc Disease - DDD

Many of our patients do not realize that they have non-surgical options for treating Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD).

Though it is true that no one can turn back the clock and completely reverse the degeneration, there is still a considerable amount that can be done.

A combination of manual therapy and exercise can - in the majority of cases improve the patient's quality of life while alleviating the suffering they are experiencing.

There are three primary objectives that we try to address when treating DDD:

  1. First…Improvement of joint mobility.

  2. Second…Reduction of pain and stiffness.

  3. Third…Inhibition of the progression of further joint damage.

Time is required to achieve these objectives through therapy and exercise, and in most cases, we have achieved positive results. Interestingly, research is showing that (over the long term) a combination of manual therapy and exercise is just as effective as surgery (surgical spinal fusion) at reducing pain and disability for patients who suffer from DDD (2). So if you are wondering if there is research to back up this perspective, the answer is YES!

Why You Need Help In Treating DDD?

Seeing a skilled practitioner can do a number of things to help you address DDD. For example :

  • The first thing that needs to be done is the completion of a comprehensive physical assessment that includes both standard orthopedic and neurological tests. This helps the practitioner to ascertain whether or not DDD is the actual problem.

  • Secondly, if required, your practitioner may order X-rays or other diagnostic procedures to aid in this evaluation. This is also a great way to rule out underlying pathologies, and if the problems is DDD it will give you a baseline to determine progression of the condition.

  • Finally, once your practitioner knows that he/she is actually dealing with a case of Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD), they can then setup an appropriate course of manual therapy (such as Motion Specific Release) in combination with a functional exercise program that is customized to your unique case.

Tip: When you have both back pain and leg pain, and your leg is worse than your back pain you are probably dealing with a disc issue.

Manual Therapy Can be Very Powerful

There are two aspects of treating DDD that must be addressed. These are joint mobility and the quality of surrounding soft tissue (myofascial release).

Joint Mobilization/Manipulation

Research has shown us that when joints become immobile, as in injury or osteoarthritis, they then become subject to several physiological changes. This includes a decrease in fluid content, which in turn can cause a decrease in the joint-fiber distance within the capsule surrounding the joint.

This in turn causes the development of increased cross-fiber linkages, which can then cause adhesion formation in the synovial folds of the joints.

These adhesions cause a decrease in the strength of collagenous tissue, which can then cascade into tissue failure, even with diminished tissue loading. (1, 2)

We have already mentioned that we cannot turn back the clock. In addition current medical technology is not at the point where collagen degeneration can be reversed (although there are some promising studies) (5).

That being said, we do know that Mobilization/Manipulation can be used to promote several beneficial effects. The objective of joint mobilization is to reverse these negative physiological changes by promoting movement between capsular fibers.

  • Research has shown that joint mobilization can gradually cause rearrangement of collagen tissue to increase mobility.

  • In addition, joint manipulation can break adhesions within the joint capsule and help to increase the length of capsular fibers. (3)

  • Although the best evidence to support this has been focused upon measuring the short-term effects of joint mobilization, clinically, we have found that it is possible to retain these changes over the long-term, by combining mobility exercises with appropriate strengthening routines.

Evidence for using Spinal Manipulation Therapy (SMT) in Lumbar Disc Herniations (LDH): There is good evidence for the use of SMT in the treatment of Lumbar Disc Herniations. What we need to define is our objectives in using SMT.

  • Reducing the time frame! We know that within about three years the material from a herniated disc will reabsorb back into the body. So whether type of treatment you use conservative care (SMT, Exercise) or surgery the results will often be similar. On the other hand who wants to be in pain and in a dysfunctional state for up to three years. SMT research supports it use of LDH to reduce pain

  • Increased mobility.

  • Increased disc hydration.

Myofascial Release Procedures

You may not be able to reverse the aging clock, but you can positively affect your shock absorption and force distribution systems at any age. This can be achieved through release of what we refer to as the myofascial system (muscle and fascia). Think of this system as a single, highly interconnected tensional network .

When this system is good balance, the myofascial system distributes force throughout the body, and allows us to store and release energy for normal motion. This system also works to take a considerable amount of stress off the spinal column.

The problem is, it is not only the disc that is affected that when a person is suffering from DDD. The lack of mobility that occurs with DDD also creates compensations, muscle imbalances and restrictions in the surrounding soft-tissue structures.

If these restrictions are not addressed (released) through myofascial release procedures (such as Motion Specific Release) and exercise, then you may not be able achieve the three objectives of increased mobility, decreased pain, and inhibition of further damage .

Fortunately effective procedures for releasing this restrictions are available. This is the type of procedures that we teach in our Motion Specific Release courses across North America.

Exercise is Critical for Managing DDD

An important component for effectively addressing DDD is to ensure that your practitioner prescribes and uses exercises that are specific to your needs.

Each case of DDD must be addressed as being specific to that individual. The exercises that work well for one individual, may well exacerbate the problem in the next. This is why it is important to individualize each exercise program to the needs of that patient.

That being said, there are three fundamental components that any exercise program must include:

  • Flexibility—to increase joint mobility, reduce pain and stiffness.

  • Strengthening— to improve core stability , which is often a major issue in Degenerative Disc Disease. These strengthening exercises should only be assigned after the flexibility exercises have restored some movement to the spine. Strengthening exercises are critical if one is to obtain long-term, sustainable progress.

  • Aerobic exercise—helps to reduce pain, encourages a healthy body weight, improves energy production (ATP), and promotes circulatory function.

In Conclusion

Don't become discouraged if you find that you are suffering from degenerative joint disease. The reality is that most people over a certain age has DDD . The main point is that there are specific strategies you can use to decrease your pain, increase mobility and slow the progress of this condition.

Key Point: Disc herniation is the result of an ongoing process. It is extremely rare to go from a healthy disc to a full herniation. The only exception being in cases of severe trauma, such as a motor vehicle accident.

So please come and see us if you suffer from Low Back Pain, a high percent of these cases will evolve disc issues. Having degenerative disc disease does not mean it can't be dealt with in most cases by using conservative therapy with exercise.


  1. Modic MT, Ross JS. Lumbar degenerative disk disease. Radiology. 2007 Oct. 245(1):43-61. [Medline].

  2. Smith JS, Sidhu G, Bode K, Gendelberg D, Maltenfort M, Ibrahimi D, Shaffrey CI, Vaccaro AR. Operative and nonoperative treatment approaches for lumbar degenerative disc disease have similar long-term clinical outcomes among patients with positive discography. World Neurosurg. 2014 Nov;82(5):872-8. doi: 10.1016/j.wneu.2013.09.013. Epub 2013 Sep 15.

  3. Findley T, and Schleip R. (2009). Introduction. In: Huijing PA, Hollander P, Findley TW, and Schleip R, eds. Fascia research II. Basic science and implications for conventional and complementary health care. München: Urban and Fischer.

  4. Schleip R, Findley TW, Leon Chaitow L, and Huijing PA. (2012). Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body - E-Book: The science and clinical applications in manual and movement therapy. Canada: Elsevier

  5. Serafim M. Oliveira, MS, PhD, Rushali A. Ringshia, MS, Racquel Z. LeGeros, PhD, Elizabeth Clark, MS, Michael J. Yost, PhD, Louis Terracio, PhD, and Cristina C. Teixeira, DMD, MS, PhD An improved Collagen Scaffold for Skeletal Regeneration J Biomed Mater Res A. 2010 Aug; 94(2): 371–379.


Dr. Abelson believes in running an Evidence Based Practice (EBP). EBP's strive to adhere to the best research evidence available, while combining their clinical expertise with the specific values of each patient.

Dr. Abelson is the developer of Motion Specific Release (MSR) Treatment Systems. His clinical practice in is located in Calgary, Alberta (Kinetic Health). He has recently authored his 10th publications which will be available later this year.


Dr. Abelson is the owner of Kinetic Health, a partner in BKAT Motion Specific Release, and a partner in Rowan Tree Books.

#DegenerativeDiscDisease #DDD #KineticHealth #DrBrianAbelson #MSR #backpain #spinaldiscdegeneration #discinjuries #backinjuries


©2018 Kinetic Health, Proudly created by TYA ART.

Suite 1234- 12 Royal Vista Way NW, Destination Pointe Complex, Calgary, AB, T3R-0N2

Tel: 403-241-3772

  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
  • White Google+ Icon