ACUPUNCTURE AND DISC DEGENERATION
Acupuncture uses very fine needles—and no medication—to treat your pain. Practitioners believe that you have an energy force called your Chi (it can also be spelled Qi, but both forms are pronounced “chee”). When this force is blocked, you can develop physical illness, such as back pain. Therefore, you need to free up your body’s Chi channels, which practitioners call your meridians. Acupuncture works to restore a healthy, energetic flow of Chi.
Acupuncture needles are almost as thin as strands of hair. Based on your symptoms and exact diagnosis, a practitioner will insert the needles; you’ll most likely have multiple needles inserted during one session. The practitioner will target precise points in your body’s meridians, and the needles will be left in for 20-40 minutes.
Acupuncture needles cause your body to release certain neurochemicals, such as endorphins or serotonin, and they help in the healing process.
A healthy intervertebral disc has a great deal of water in the nucleus pulposus (the center portion of the disc). The water content gives the nucleus a spongy quality and allows it to absorb spinal stress. Excessive pressure or injuries to the disc can cause the injury to the annulus (the outer ring of tough ligament material) that holds the vertebrae together. The annulus is generally the first portion of the disc to be injured. Small tears show up in the ligament material of the annulus. These tears heal by scar tissue, which is not as strong as normal ligament tissue. The annulus becomes weaker over time as more scar tissue forms. This can lead to damage of the nucleus pulposus. It begins to lose its water content and dry up. View animation of degeneration.
Loss of Water
Loss of water content causes the discs to lose some of their ability to act as cushions. This can lead to even more stress on the annulus and still more tears as the cycle repeats itself. As the nucleus loses its water content, it collapses. Without the cushion effect of the discs, the vertebrae in your spine would not be able to absorb stresses or provide the movement needed to bend and twist and collapses, allowing the two vertebrae above and below to move closer to one another. This results in a narrowing of the disc space between the two vertebrae. As this shift occurs, the facet joints (located at the back of the spine) are forced to shift. Shifting changes the way the facet joints work together and can cause problems as well.
Bone spurs, sometimes called osteophytes, may begin to form around the disc space. These can also form around the facet joints. This is thought to be due to the body’s response to try to stop the excess motion at the spinal segment. The bone spurs can become a problem if they start to grow into the spinal canal and press into the spinal cord and spinal nerves. This condition is called spinal stenosis.
The most common early symptom of degenerative disc disease is usually pain in the back that spreads to the buttocks and upper thighs. When doctors refer to degenerative disc disease, they are usually referring to a combination of problems in the spine that “start” with damage to the disc, but eventually begin to affect all parts of the spine. Problems thought to arise from the degenerating disc itself include discogenic pain, and bulging discs.
Discogenic pain is a term back specialists use when referring to pain caused by a damaged intervertebral disc. A degenerating disc may cause mechanical (or structural) pain. As the disc begins to degenerate, there is some evidence that the disc itself becomes painful. Movements that place stress on the disc can result in back pain that appears to come from the disc. This is similar to any other body part that is injured, such as a broken bone or a cut in the skin. When these types of injuries are held still there is no pain, but if you move them they hurt.
Discogenic pain usually causes pain felt in the lower back. It may also feel like the pain is coming from your buttock area and even down into the upper thighs. The experience of feeling pain in an area away from the real cause is common in many areas of the body, not just the spine. For instance, a person with gallstones may feel pain in the shoulder or a person experiencing a heart attack may feel pain in the left arm. This is referred to as radiation of the pain. It is very common for pain produced by spine problems to be felt in different areas of the body-including the back.
Bulging discs are fairly common in both young adults and older people. They are not cause for panic. Abnormalities, such as bulging or protruding discs, are seen at high rates on MRIs in patients both with and without back pain. Some discs most likely begin to bulge as a part of both the aging process and the degeneration process of the intervertebral disc. A bulging disc is not necessarily a sign that anything serious is happening to your spine.
A bulging disc only becomes serious when it bulges enough to cause narrowing of the spinal canal. If there are bone spurs present on the facet joints behind the bulging disc, the combination may cause narrowing of the spinal canal in that area. This is sometimes referred to as segmental spinal stenosis.
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