Physical Therapy for Degenerative Disc Disease

Reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD

Because degenerative disc disease (DDD) can weaken your spine significantly, you may need to work on strengthening your back, neck, and core muscles. Then they will help support your spine better, which may lead to reduced pain. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy to help treat DDD.
Physical therapy includes both passive and active treatments. Passive treatments help to relax you and your body. They're called passive because you don't have to actively participate. If you're experiencing acute pain, you'll most likely start with passive treatments as your body heals and/or adjusts to the pain. But the goal of physical therapy is to get into active treatments. These are therapeutic exercises that strengthen your body so that your spine has better support.

Passive Physical Therapy Treatments for Degenerative Disc Disease
Your physical therapist may give you one of the passive treatments below.

Active Physical Therapy Treatments for Degenerative Disc Disease
In the active part of physical therapy, your therapist will teach you various exercises to improve your flexibility, strength, core stability, and range of motion (how easily your joints move). Your physical therapy program is individualized, taking into consideration your health and history. Your exercises may not be suitable for another person with DDD.

Degenerative disc disease won't ever entirely "go away"—once your discs start to degenerate, you can't reverse that process—and because of that, your physical therapist will help you learn how to work around it and how to limit the pain. You'll learn about body mechanics and how to avoid positions that cause pain.

If needed, you will learn how to correct your posture and incorporate ergonomic principles into your daily activities. This is all part of the "self-care" or "self-treatment" aspect of physical therapy: Through physical therapy, you learn good habits and principles that enable you to take better care of your body.

Your physical therapist may also suggest a personalized exercise program for you. The goals may include: strengthening abdominal and back muscles, increasing muscle endurance (so that your stronger muscles can work harder longer), and getting your body to carry your weight more efficiently. An exercise program comes with another bonus—it may help you lose weight. Extra weight can exacerbate pain from DDD, so if you need to lose weight, your physical therapist can work with you to set goals and then follow through.

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