Exercise and Degenerative Disc Disease

Can exercise keep DDD at bay?

Question: I'm in my late 40s, and I have mild degenerative disc disease (DDD). Can you keep DDD at bay with stretching and other forms of exercise, or will the disease get worse no matter what you do? I have an office job, and I sit for the majority of my work day. I'm wondering if that has an effect on DDD as well.
— Albany, GA

Answer: You can keep mild degenerative disc disease at bay with exercises and stretches, but what type of exercise you do—as well as what else you do throughout your day—counts.

To help you understand degenerative disc disease, here's a little background information about this condition: Degenerative disc disease is a progressive spine condition, which means that the older you get, the worse it can become. With DDD, your intervertebral discs can become stiff and rigid over time, which can cause back pain and stiffness.

Some people are more prone to developing degenerative discs early because their spines age more quickly than others. Genetics plays a major role in how soon your spine ages. Your discs can actually begin to show signs of wear ("degeneration") in your teen years, and the degeneration can continue throughout your life.

man stretching his neck while working at his deskTaking periodic breaks from work to stretch your neck and back while seated at your desk can help reduce pain. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

In addition to genes as a risk factor for DDD, the environment can cause DDD, too. For example, a fall or other injury can eventually lead to the development of DDD.

What's important to note about DDD is that many people with disc degeneration that's seen on imaging tests (eg, x-rays or MRIs) have no back pain. The opposite can be true, too. Back pain can occur in people who have no significant disc degeneration. In other words, there's a weak connection between clinical signs of DDD-related back pain and the pictures of discs seen on imaging tests.

Unfortunately, you can't reverse DDD, but what you can do is help treat it by leading a healthy lifestyle—making sure you get enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.

Treating Degenerative Disc Disease with Exercise
Exercise is one of the main components when it comes to treating DDD. Regular, moderate exercise can help keep your discs healthy, and it can help you feel better overall.

Here are 3 important things to keep in mind when exercising with DDD.

  1. Low-impact exercise is key. Try walking, water aerobics, yoga, Pilates, and stretching. Lifting heavy weights or running marathons might not be a good idea if you have significant disc degeneration or many DDD symptoms. Instead, your goal should be regular, moderate exercise, which will help strengthen your muscles, bones, and joints. Exercise also helps maintain optimum nutrition for your discs, which rely on movement for its nutrients.
  2. Work with a physical therapist, chiropractor, or certified personal trainer. He or she can show you specific exercises and stretches to help you maintain flexibility and strength and minimize your back pain and stiffness. A trained and knowledgeable health care professional can give you tips on how to maintain a healthy posture, which exercises may be best for you, and how you can prevent back pain. He or she can develop an individualized exercise plan for you, focused on reducing your pain and increasing your mobility and range of motion.
  3. Don't push yourself too hard. Respect your body and its limits. Avoid re-injuring yourself by listening to what your body is telling you during exercise. Sitting tends to be especially bothersome for many people with disc-related back pain.

If you sit all day at work, taking short, frequent breaks to stand and walk—even for a minute or two—can be beneficial. Walking at lunch or parking the car farther from the office can also help get you moving more.

Soreness is normal after the first couple of days of beginning an exercise program for degenerative disc disease (or any other exercise program for that matter), but if you have new symptoms or symptoms that last for more than a few days, tell your doctor right away. As always, it's a good idea to discuss a new exercise plan with your doctor before actually beginning it.

Learn more about DDD ... visit the Degenerative Disc Disease Center