Living with Degenerative Disc Disease

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The vast majority of people with lower back pain and/or sciatica symptoms from lumbar degenerative disc disease will be able to successfully manage their pain and avoid surgery. Indeed, over 90% of individuals specifically diagnosed with degenerative disc diseasewill find that their low back pain and other symptoms go away or subside within three months.

See Cervical Pain from Joint Degeneration

But even patients whose pain does not subside within three months can undertake a range of actions—including a number of self-care activities—to manage their pain.

This article identifies the key components of a self-care program patients can undertake to manage the pain of degenerative disc disease, and describes actions that can be incorporated into daily routines, including:

  • First, quickly reduce the pain to a tolerable level
  • Engage in a controlled, progressive exercise and active rehabilitation
  • Identify and act on any behavioral and activity modifications needed to minimize aggravation to the disc
  • Improve hydration and nutrition to foster improved spinal disc health
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What you need to know about DDD Pain

Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease Video

What many patients don’t know is that degenerative disc disease pain in the vast majority of cases is often manageable through self care and some nonsurgical treatments.

  • See Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment for Low Back Pain

Here are several insights about degenerative disc disease that will help patients navigate their treatment options and play an active role in minimizing their pain:

  • Degenerative disc disease pain does not tend to progress with age. While the discs will often continue to degenerate, the associated pain tends to subside. Generally by age 60 a degenerated disc will have stabilized and will usually not be painful.
  • The typical symptom profile is that pain increases at times with a painful flare-up that can last several days, weeks, or even a few months, but then usually subsides back to a lower, more tolerable level.
  • The surgery to address degenerative disc disease is typically a spinal fusion, which is a major surgery and changes the anatomy of the back by fusing a motion segment together into one long bone.
    • See Surgery for Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease

In This Article:

  • Living with Degenerative Disc Disease
  • How to Lessen Pain from a Degenerated Disc
  • Controlling Degenerative Disc Disease Pain: Three Things You Can Do
  • Step Two of DDD Management: Reduce Lower Back Stress
  • Step Three of DDD Management: Improve Nutrition
  • Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease Video
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Consequently, the goal for patients living with degenerative disc disease should be to do what they can to proactively manage their painful flare-ups and reduce the incidence and severity of flare-ups. This focus will, in turn, provide the best chance for patients to maintain their ability to function in everyday activities, if possible avoid major surgery.

How to Lessen Pain from a Degenerated Disc

Before taking steps for long-term rehabilitation and pain control, it is often necessary for a patient to get relief from a flare-up of intense, debilitating pain associated with lumbar degenerative disc disease.

  • Read more about Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)

Once the pain is under control and reduced to a more tolerable level, patients can then perform everyday activities and engage in active physical therapy and exercise to improve the longer term course of degenerative disc disease.

See Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

Ice Application
Applying ice to muscles that are painful after activity or exercise will help control pain and inflammation. Using ice packs on the lower back for 10 minutes can be a cost-effective, easy approach to take at home. Having ready-made packs in the freezer will allow patients to grab one quickly when needed.

      • See Ice Packs for Back Pain Relief

Heat Application
Alternatively, a heating pad or moist heat compresses (a moistened towel warmed in a microwave is easy to make) can relax muscles or joints around the degenerated disc that have tightened up. Applying heat will warm up the lower back muscles, make stretching and exercise easier and decreasing the chance of injury.

Over the Counter Medication
Taking over-the counter medication such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, e.g. Advil or Motrin) can decrease the inflammation around the degenerated disc. Pain can also be treated with acetaminophen pain relievers such as Tylenol.

For pain that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medications and home remedies, stronger anti-inflammatory medications can be prescribed (such as COX-2 inhibitors) or administered directly into the low back (e.g., epidural injections) for pain relief.

Patients can also take advantage of alternative therapies like massage therapy, acupuncture or chiropractic manipulation to relieve tightness and decrease pain. Often patients will find that a combination of therapies works well, such as spinal manipulation, NSAIDs, massage therapy, and ice and heat.

Once the pain is at a tolerable level, patients then have a lot of options in terms of what they can personally do to prevent and/or minimize future flare-ups of degenerative disc related pain.

Controlling Degenerative Disc Disease Pain: Three Things You Can Do

Degenerative disc disease is a difficult condition to live with. However, it does not need to hinder the rest of your life.

Here are three things you can do to control your disc degeneration:

Step One: Stay active to slow the disc degeneration

Once pain is adequately controlled (it will most likely not go away completely) the most important thing patients can do is stay active.

Exercises not only preserve what functionality exists; they are the single best way of healing the back. Exercise increases the flow of blood and oxygen and other nutrients to the back and discs, thereby keeping them hydrated and as pliable as possible. Exercise can also improve one’s sense of well-being by promoting the release of endorphins, a natural pain-reliever and stress reducer.

Staying active does not require a lot of innovation, but it does require planning, such as:

Strengthening and Aerobic Conditioning
Alternating 30 minutes of strengthening exercises with low-impact exercise like walking, biking or swimming every other day can maintain flexibility and mobility, as well as control weight. For those who are in too much pain to tolerate much exercise, a gentle approach is best. Water therapy is particularly gentle on the lower back, as the water provides support for the weight of the body.

Doing five minutes of stretches first thing in the morning and the last thing before bed will also significantly increase mobility. Hamstring stretching is almost always important for patients with lower back pain. Additional, more targeted stretching, such as piriformis stretches, may be advisable, depending on the patient’s diagnosis.

Investing in a few hour-long sessions with a physical therapist or certified athletic trainer knowledgeable about low back pain can provide adequate guidance and ideas for back exercises that can be done with and without exercise equipment.

  • See Exercise and Back Pain

Step Two of DDD Management: Reduce Lower Back Stress

The corollary to undertaking productive activity is stopping destructiveactivity, and there are many opportunities throughout the day to modify common actions that can hurt a degenerated disc, such as:

    • Correcting posture and using low back support. Degenerated discs are frequently more painful when an individual is sitting, especially if he or she is slumped forward putting more pressure on the lower back. Sitting upright in an ergonomic chair that provides low back support for the natural curve in the lumbar region can prevent irritating discs. Hanging a small mirror near their desk can allow patients to check posture and remind them to straighten up.
      • See Office Chair: Choosing the Right Ergonomic Office Chair
  • Changing position often to relieve stress and increase blood flow. Just standing and walking 10 paces every 20 or 30 minutes is enough to prevent low back stiffness from setting in.
  • Lifting heavy objects correctly. This involves holding the object close to the body, engaging the large quadriceps muscles in the thighs and placing the object by pivoting the feet, not twisting the back or torso. Leaning over from the waist should be avoided.
    • See Avoid Back Injury with the Right Lifting Techniques
  • Finally, sleeping on a comfortable, supportive mattress can make the difference between waking up refreshed and waking up stiff and sore. There are many mattresses designed to provide support to the natural curves of the back, and patients should choose the type of mattress they feel most comfortable in to help them sleep soundly at night.
    • See Choosing the Best Mattress for Lower Back Pain

Step Three of DDD Management: Improve Nutrition

The health of one’s spine reflects the overall health of the body, and a healthy diet plays a role in moderating the low back pain of degenerative disc disease. Specifically, intervertebral discs benefit from:

  • Hydration
  • Oxygenation

Patients can achieve both hydration and oxygenation with small changes, such as:

  • Hydration can be improved by sipping water throughout the day, especially during and after exercise, as well as eliminating or reducing use of caffeinated drinks such as coffee, some teas, and soda.
  • Alcohol use should be minimized. Alcohol not only decreases hydration, it is a depressant. Using alcohol to self-medicate and numb pain can start a cycle of unhealthy actions, interfering with everything from sleep quality, the ability to make healthy food choices, and the motivation to exercise.
  • Smoking – or any nicotine intake – should be eliminated, because it interferes with nutrition for the spinal discs by preventing the good oxygen flow needed to keep them healthy.
    • See Does Smoking Cause Low Back Pain?
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Although the term degenerative disc disease sounds fearsome, for most people the low back pain and other symptoms from lumbar degenerative disc disease can be managed quite effectively with self-care.

By making a concerted effort at managing the pain, most patients will find that they can keep the pain to a tolerable level and continue to enjoy their favorite activities without having to undergo major surgery.

  • See Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease Treatments


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