Degenerative disc disease is not so much a disease—but more of a progressive condition that affects the rubbery pads located between the vertebrae of the spine. These spinal discs are susceptible to “wear and tear” that comes with aging, disease, and injury.
Degenerative disc disease refers to damage that has progressed to the point it causes back pain and stiffness. We’ll show you what not to do if you have progressive disc degeneration—and recommend positive changes you can make to increase mobility and ease pain. That makes for a happier and healthier back!
The human spinal column is comprised of 23 vertebral discs that rest between the bony back bones (vertebra) that form the vertebral column. Each disc contains two parts. The annulus fibrosus is the tough outer core made up of tough collagen fibers. The nucleus pulposus is the soft, inner core that contains a microprotein gel.
Spinal discs have several important jobs:
Around age 40, most people begin to experience some spinal degeneration. It’s a natural part of aging. In some cases, a previous back injury, or high-intensity sports and activities can accelerate disc wear and tear. Also, certain lifestyle habits can either contribute to a healthy spine—or increase your risk of pain and problems.
Pain is the most common symptom of DDD. It is often described as pain that:
In addition to back pain, DDD sometimes causes numbness in the arms and legs and leg pain and weakness after walking or exercise.
Keep in mind, back pain is a common and complex health concern. It can indicate a wide range of musculoskeletal conditions. Always see your healthcare provider if you have severe or unexplained back pain to get a proper diagnosis and determine the best course of treatment.
Now, let’s focus on the do’s and don’ts to protect your spine and slow the progression of back pain.
Movement is healthy for the spine. Sitting for long periods of time reduces blood flow to the different structures of the back. Frequent movement can help keep the joints of the spine lubricated and helps to provide nutrition to the discs.
While posture in and of itself doesn’t correlate with back pain- although this has been a long-held belief- certain postures can aggravate symptoms if you are already experiencing back pain.
Try this instead: When sitting make sure your spine is flush against your chair. Use a small towel roll in the small of your back to support the natural curvature of the spine. Roll your shoulders back and down.
Keep your feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart. If you work at a desk, rest your arms on your work surface at a 90-degree angle. Get up and take frequent walk breaks to ease pressure on your discs.
If you are in pain, there can be benefits to keeping a neutral spine with lifting. Individuals with low back pain are known to have a stiffer squat and change their mechanics compared to people without pain. If you don’t have any back pain, keep doing you!
Try this instead: First, see if someone can help you move or lift the item. Sharing the task distributes the load and reduces the strain on your spine.
Over-the-counter pain medications can be used for temporary relief, but they are not recommended for long-term use. Prescription medications are also effective, but they come with a risk of side effects and dependency.
Your provider may recommend: Steroid injections are a low-risk, rapid-result alternative to prolonged use of over-the-counter and prescription medications for relief from DDD back pain. During this procedure, your healthcare provider injects medicine near the affected spinal structures to reduce pain and inflammation. Consult your provider to discuss the risks, benefits, and alternatives of steroid injections and to determine if you are a candidate for spinal steroid injections.
The body’s immune system activates when it encounters anything it doesn’t recognize, from viruses and bacteria to chemicals and foreign particles. Because these substances are unfamiliar, the body goes into “attack” mode, sending out inflammatory cells to fight invaders and heal damaged tissue.
Acute inflammation is normal and healthy, like when you cut your knee and your body sends inflammatory cells to that area. Chronic inflammation happens over the course of time when a body can’t repair and overcome the level of damage as it occurs.
It can also occur even in the absence of damage. In this case, the body will continue to send white blood cells (like soldiers going into battle) into overdrive, attacking healthy tissues and organs. That’s not ideal for someone with a degenerative condition.
Certain foods can contribute to increased inflammation. Try to cut them out of your diet as much as possible:
Try this instead: It may not be easy, and you may have to say good-bye to your favorite snacks, but if you add more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet, you will feel and move better. You’ll also lower your risk of several chronic health problems including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.
Foods that fight inflammation:
Exercise is possible with DDD. It’s recommended. But before you hit the pavement for a run, or break out the kettlebells, make sure your favorite activities are safe for your back.
If you have been diagnosed with degeneration, a spinal disc issue, or are just starting to notice mild low back pain when you do a heavy activity, here are some things to keep in mind. Your back is resilient and can get better with time.
Some high-impact activities, especially those that involve heaving pushing, pulling, or lifting might be aggravating to your back right now. But very often, you can progressively work back toward these activities.
Try this to start: There are plenty of safe, gentle ways to get moving and stay fit at every age and stage of life. Things like yoga, tai chi, and aquatic therapy are low-impact ways to ease into activity and can help you gain muscle strength and mobility.
When you’re ready for more: Gradual introduction of heavy weights is not only safe, but it can improve older adults’ vitality and longevity. Lifting heavy things is just a part of life: from doing the laundry to cleaning up the yard.
We all need to do these things, regardless of age. To get the most out of a strength-training program, it is best to consult with a physical therapist to safely guide you through the exercises and weights that are right for your body and your goals.
If you want to stay active and mobile with DDD, consider a self-referral to a skilled physical therapist. Physical therapy offers safe, gentle, structured stretching and exercise to promote healthy spine movement and function.
Your therapist creates a customized program to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life through hands-on manual therapy, joint and soft-tissue mobilization, and other, evidence-based treatments.
As we get older, some spinal degeneration is inevitable. But there is so much you can do to maintain strength, balance, and stability well into the golden years. Find a physical therapy clinic near you to schedule an evaluation today.