Degenerative disc disease may sound scary, but it’s largely a normal aging process that is not closely related to pain or disability. You may develop symptoms however there is a lot that can be done to improve symptoms.
To prevent DDD from getting worse, maintain an active lifestyle, don’t smoke, and get enough walking in your day.
The mechanisms that are occurring with degenerative disc disease are largely the same as those that occur with knee osteoarthritis. What’s all this mean? That there is a slow-moving inflammatory process that gradually reduces our bone cartilage and disc material over the course of many years.
Some people will have pain from this, others will not and it is very person dependent. In fact, many people in there 60s, 70s, and 80’s, will have DDD as shown on X-ray but have no pain associated with this.
“the degenerated disc does not always evoke symptoms. According to Boden’s study39, there is disc degeneration in at least one lumbar level in 35% of subjects between twenty and thirty-nine years of age but all subjects sixty to eighty years of age show disc degeneration. It is quite difficult to differentiate the normal aging process from pathological degeneration in patients showing symptoms4.”
If you are looking for different exercises to try to improve the symptoms you’re experiencing from DDD, please check out this article I wrote with instructional videos!
In this article, we’ll go over the main things that cause degenerative disc disease and what you can do to reduce your chance of having the symptoms of chronic back pain.
I also wrote another article about things to avoid with degenerative disc disease that adds extra information to this article. Check this one out after you’ve finished this. I’ll link to it at the end of the article, too.
Smoking cessation to reduce lower back pain
Numerous studies have shown a clear link to smoking and lower back pain. Current research suggests it takes ~ 30 times to quit smoking before you are successful. The most important thing to do is keep trying and have grace and compassion for yourself as you go through this process.
If you receive professional help, the number of attempts is usually greatly reduced.
What do we mean when we talk about degenerative disc disease getting worse?
I think it’s important to define what we mean by “worse.” By worse I am speaking about any sort of pain getting worse. Other people may be defining this as the imaging getting worse, but, as i’ve discussed in previous articles and videos, the severity of imaging is not closely related to the amount of pain someone will have.
A classic example of this is one of my clients who I worked with who had an MRI on both knees.
In her right knee she had severe osteoarthritis and two large meniscus tears. In her left knee she had one small meniscal tear.
Guess which one hurt the most?
Her left knee. Yep, that’s the right, the one with a very small tear. The one that looked worse on the imaging was in fact her knee that felt, in her words, “great.”
Upon reviewing these findings she said, “isn’t it strange that my right knee looks so much worse, yet feels so much better?”
This is often the case with degenerative disc disease, too. The imaging can look fairly “bad,” yet your symptoms may be non-existent, or very mild.
If you are reading this though, you are likely having pain. So let’s go into the next step.
Can exercise help with degenerative disc disease-related lower back pain?
That’s a big, yes!
Lower back pain, from DDD, stenosis, disc herniation, muscle spasms, or of other etiology (cause), are all generally treated the same way.
Find a type of movement and/or exercise that you enjoy and doesn’t make the symptoms worse and then slowly increase the amount you are doing.
Surprisingly and to my chagrin, powerlifting training isn’t any more superior than walking when it comes to improving lower back pain.
Some people will benefit from any of the below modes of exercise:
- Lifting weights
- And… anything else you can think of.
If you are thinking “well dang… how do I know what type to do,” I’d say start with something that doesn’t flare symptoms too much and that you enjoy.
Next, if you’re not sure how you should modify workouts that you normally do, I wrote an article that goes over 7 different ways to modify your exercise routines to keep you moving even if you have pain.
You can read that article by clicking or tapping this link:
How will social support prevent pain from getting worse?
People who have strong support systems and who feel generally happier, even if they have pain, it has less of an impact on their life.
In my practice, I always ask people what their support system looks like and if they feel like they have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life. If you do have a sense of meaning and purpose in your life, it becomes much easier to cope with any sort of pain or discomfort that comes along.
As someone who struggles with becoming apathetic (me), I choose to focus on gratitude, and all the good things that are happening in my life. I believe that I have the choice and am an active participant in making my life better. My life choices and how it ends up is up to me. Cultivating this mindset over time requires work, but it is likely the most worthwhile endeavor you could undertake.
Can sleep quality affect how much back pain we experience?
While this is nowhere near conclusive, it is possible that lack of quality sleep can lead to a higher risk of developing low back pain as described in this study.
We are talking about low back pain, because as we discussed earlier lower back pain is what we want to prevent getting worse, not necessarily the degeneration of the discs themselves. Given, there is a correlation of more low back pain symptoms with more findings via imaging so this is something to pay attention to.
How important is posture in regards to degenerative disc disease?
You might have heard that poor posture can make DDD worse and then also cause more back pain.
While it’s true that if you stay in one posture for an extended period of time; think about lying on your back for 12 hours straight, it’ll probably hurt, this does not mean that poor posture is necessarily causative of back pain.
Show me 10 people who slouch who have back pain, and i’ll show you 10 people who have perfect “military” posture who have back pain.
Back Pain whether related to DDD or not can happen in people with all sorts of postures.
Does a healthy body weight help reduce the prevalence of lower back pain?
Yes, overweight and obesity are risk factors in developing lower back pain. It’s unclear of the relationship between lower back pain, degenerative disc disease, and lower back pain, other than the risk of developing back pain increases if you are overweight or obese.
Whether this is related to mechanical pressure, a chemical process, or a combination of both is also unclear in relation to the mechanisms of obesity and back pain.
Are lifting mechanics important in reducing lower back pain?
You’ve likely been told or heard that improper lifting mechanics cause lower back pain and can cause further degeneration of the intervertebral discs.
If this is the case, then we would expect for people who have perfect lifting form to never experience lower back pain. Unfortunately this is not the case.
I was a competitive powerlifter for a few years and had near-perfect form. I was warming up with very lightweight compared to my normal lifting and experienced a severe back spasm that lasted a week. This clearly was not caused by poor lifting mechanics as I was a fairly advanced lifter.
Lifting mechanics likely become more important towards the upper end of our capabilities but it’s less important when it comes to lifting very light objects off of the ground. In fact, I will actually teach my clients to lift with “poor form,” on occasion because it better replicates real life. We won’t always be able to the most optimal form when lifting, it’s simply not possible as everyday objects have awkards shapes.
Are weak muscles to blame for degenerative disc disease and any pain associated?
You might have also heard that weak muscles are the cause of worsening DDD and the pain associated.
My question to you would be; what about my client who is a powerlifter who had insanely strong muscles and still developed lower back pain?
Or my client who had a visible six-pack who developed back pain?
The reality is that people weak and strong can still develop low back pain.
It is my opinion and one that does have some research backing that people who are strong and fitter generally will not develop as much low back pain and DDD in their life and if they do they’ll be able to cope with it a bit better.
I hope that was helpful!
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Here is that article with more information on things to avoid with DDD. Enjoy, and happy reading!