Alternative Treatments for Degenerative Disc Disease

Alternative and integrative health care professionals offer acupuncture and herbal therapies to help relieve symptoms of degenerative disc disease.

Written by Jason M. Highsmith, MD

To treat your pain and other symptoms from degenerative disc disease, you could look into alternative treatments. As the name implies, they are alternatives to medication, physical therapy, or surgery—the typical "Western" approach to medicine.

You may consider going to a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioner, also referred to as an integrative health professional. CAM is a somewhat sweeping grouping of practices and therapies that aren't considered part of conventional medicine by some health care providers. CAM or integrative therapies include traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, and massage. Many patients have reported that these treatments have really helped.

Acupuncture: Developed in China, 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 to 40 minutes. It's been suggested that acupuncture needles cause your body to release certain neurochemicals, such as endorphins or serotonin, and they help in the healing process.

Herbal Remedies: Before trying any herbal remedies, do your research and talk to your doctor. There may be side effects that you're unaware of—an herbal remedy could interfere with a prescribed medicine you're taking, for example. Some herbal remedies you may want to consider for degenerative disc disease are:

Prolotherapy: Some patients have tried this treatment and found that it works to reduce their pain from degenerative disc disease. Proponents of prolotherapy explain that one of the problems associated with DDD is weak ligaments and tendons. Strong, supportive ligaments and tendons are essential in your spine because they help maintain stability. After your discs start to degenerate, essentially weakening your spine, your ligaments and tendons have to work extra hard to support your back. Over time, though, they can degenerate, too; they can wear out or even tear. This leaves your intervertebral discs without the support they need.

Prolotherapy attempts to stimulate growth of new ligament and tendon tissues. Using an injection of a "proliferant" (a term used by prolotherapists—it's a mild irritant solution), prolotherapy is supposed to kick-start the body's healing process. The proliferant causes inflammation, which tells the body to start healing itself by generating new tissue.

A prolotherapy injection goes right into the problem ligaments and tendons, and it takes several rounds of injections (and time) to experience the effects. If you think prolotherapy may be an option for you, talk to your doctor.

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Selecting a Complementary, Alternative or Integrative Health Practitioner