Short answer, highly unlikely. In order for this to happen, you would need to have such severe stenosis that there is no space for either the spinal nerve roots to exit or complete compression of the spinal cord itself. 

I’ve never had a patient like this and I’ve also not read about degenerative disc disease (DDD) leading to this. 

It is true that some people who have DDD can develop numbness, tingling, and pain, however, it’s also worth noting that it’s also likely that the pain is not necessarily linked to your DDD. We’ll go over this in detail in the next section of this article. 

spine model

Table of contents:

  1. What is Degenerative disc disease?
  2. Can you become paralyzed from DDD?
  3. Things to avoid with degenerative disc disease
  4. How fast does degenerative disc disease progress?
  5. Can degenerative disc disease be reversed?

What is Degenerative disc disease?

Degenerative disc disease, also known as DDD, is not really a disease at all. It’s a normal part of the aging process, just like getting wrinkles on our skin. Consider this “wrinkles on the inside.” 

Usually, people find out they have DDD when they have back pain, get an x-ray from their doctor, and then are informed of this. Many of my clients then go onto google “what is degenerative disc disease,” “is it serious,” “should I be concerned,” and unfortunately many of the top articles on google are frankly a pile of you know what… 

To date, there is no strong link between DDD and lower back pain. While it is true that people with “more” findings on x-ray, such as more DDD, stenosis, etc, tend to have back pain more often, this doesn’t explain the large percentage of the population with DDD and no pain whatsoever. 

By the way, this large population, particularly as we get older is > 70%. If 70% of the population is asymptomatic (no symptoms), and shows DDD, is it really a problem? Maybe it’s something else?

Credit: Jarod Hall, PT, DPT, CSCS — http://drjarodhalldpt.blogspot.com/2016/02/what-if-i-told-you-thatdiscs-heal.html

We see the same phenomenon with rotator cuff tears, knee osteoarthritis, meniscus tears of the knee, and even ACL tears; just because there is a tear or lesion that appears on x-ray or MRI does NOT mean it is the culprit for pain. In some cases it could be, but in many cases its likely not. 

Now, we can’t say this for certain as nothing is 100%, however, based on our best available research, and the clients I have worked with, I can confidently say that we should NEVER only treat based on what the imaging says. 

Too often, my clients come in and ask me “so how is physical therapy going to heal my torn rotator cuff?” Or, “how is physical therapy going to heal my degenerative discs, herniated discs, and other issues?”

My answer is simple. 

It won’t. 

Rehab will likely not change what the tissue looks like on the image, but, what if I told you that it could change you felt and function?

Isn’t that the important part?

 Exercise and rehab is not going to miraculously heal a ligament tear or bone degeneration or a full-thickness rotator cuff tear in terms of reattaching the tear. What it will do is help to reduce the symptoms that you’re having, sometimes to zero, and get you back to functioning at full capacity and even greater than your prior capacity. 

If the tear isn’t healed, am I at risk of injuring it worse with exercise?

No. While the risk isn’t zero from exercise, the risk is much greater of you getting old and weak. Talk about the worse possible outcome in life is becoming old and weak. 

We’ll all get old, it’s largely a choice of whether we get weak or not. 

People think that exerting themselves will cause harm, and I would agree that overexertion with exercise that is not dosed properly has the potential to be injurious. 

If you train progressively this is very unlikely to happen. Hire a trainer, work out with a friend, and there is a low likelihood that you would injure yourself .

Remember, if you fear injuring yourself, you are fearing the wrong thing. If you want to fear anything, fear being old and weak and allow that to catalyze you into action. (hopefully, that action is strength training!)

Can you become paralyzed by DDD?

I’m sure this has happened before to someone in the universe. Given that there have been approximately 117 billion humans to ever have been born, it’s likely at least one of those has become paralyzed from this. 

But, I can confidently propose that the likelihood of this occurring is less than the likelihood of being struck by lightning while fighting a polar bear in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

I’ve never had a patient where this happened to them and I know of maybe one person who said they are now in a wheelchair due to this, but, it’s likely that they are in the wheelchair due to severe pain that has been mismanaged by their medical team. 

Things to Avoid With Degenerative Disc Disease

Nothing. There is nothing you need to avoid other than activities that continue to make your symptoms worse.

 

This is where working with a rehab professional can be very beneficial to help guide you through a process to figure out when to push harder and when to pull back. 

There is no inherently bad exercise, just the exercise you weren’t prepared for. 

How Fast Does Degenerative Disc Disease Progress?

There is no hard and fast rule for how fast DDD progresses and whether that even matters or not. 

My perspective on this, based on the academic literature that I’ve read is that we shouldn’t worry about the progression of DDD as it is not strongly connected with pain. 

What we should do is stay as active as possible and live an active, fulfilled life. 

Can Degenerative Disc disease be reversed?

No. Additionally, based on what was shared above, you don’t need to reverse it. People assume it needs to be reversed in order to have less pain, but as I demonstrated earlier, you can reduce symptoms without changing what the spine looks like. 

This happens all the time.

Summary

  • Degenerative disc disease is a normal part of aging 
  • DDD is not strongly connected with how much pain you’re having
  • DDD doesn’t need to “heal” in order for symptoms to improve
  • There is no bad exercise for DDD and you should get back to normal activities. If you are struggling with this, work with a rehab professional who can help you make a plan.