Degenerative Disc Disease Prevention and Relief

Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common sources of back pain as you age, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Here are a few ways to slow down DDD and preserve your discs, no matter how old you are.

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Few things escape the ravages of time. Your car breaks down. Your roof needs to be replaced. Even the Great Sphinx of Giza lost its nose.

Your back is no different.

Patient in consultation with DoctorOnce your spine specialist has outlined a treatment plan, follow it exactly—that's the best way to bring back pain relief.

In between the bones of your spine—the vertebrae—are key protective units: the shock-absorbing intervertebral discs. These protectors naturally start wearing down (degenerating)as we age. The common name for this change is degenerative disc disease, or DDD.

Richard Guyer, MD, co-founder of the Texas Back Institute in Plano, TX, thinks it’s a bit of a misnomer. “It’s [really] not a disease; it’s a natural aging process,” he points out.

“DDD is the very commonly accepted name of…a condition of the spine when we see that there are degenerative changes. As we [get older] of course all our body parts begin to age,” he says.

“One of the things we see in degenerative disc disease—or age in the spine—is that the soft disc, which is made up of a significant amount of water, slowly starts to dry out. [It’s] the protein/sugar molecules that are within the disc [that] start to dry out…and that begins a whole degenerative cascade along with tearing of the outside rings of the disc that resist twisting,” says Dr. Guyer.

Degenerative Disc Disease Causes and Risk Factors

As Dr. Guyer, explained, the most common cause of disc degeneration is aging. Aging means water loss, which means thinner and less protection. So your shock absorbers don’t absorb shocks as well as they used to.

Disc degeneration doesn’t always happen later in life. Genetics can be the catapult for developing it when you’re younger.

And Dr. Guyer notes that “besides aging, there are [other] factors. It’s the old story of your environment vs. genetic make-up.”

Stresses and strains, wear and tear, mean that in truly degenerative disc disease, discs dry out, and can even the rings can crack or tear. “If you do a job that requires heavy lifting and twisting and bending, this can set off [disc damage],” Dr. Guyer says, but adds that physical stressors don’t automatically enhance disc erosion. “You can do this [kind of work] your entire life and not have problems.”

Lift Right to Preserve Your Discs

“Unfortunately we don’t train people on proper body posture and body mechanics,” say Guyer, and that’s a contributing factor to  increasing the risk of nerve, spine, or back pain from disc damage.

“My favorite line to tell a patient is don’t use your back as a crane,” Dr. Guyer says. “Don’t bend over at the waist. Squat down with your hips and knees if you’re going to lift.” He admits that not everything can be done that way, “but if [they] can eliminate a lot of that bending at the waist, patients will be better.”

Think of lifting those bulk packages at the big discount stores. “Those 24-packs of water? I use my arms to pick them up like [I’m doing] a weight-lifting routine. I don’t bend over. I keep my back straight,” Dr. Guyer adds.

Speaking of lifting, don’t neglect your core. “Do your core exercises [to] maintain a very, very, strong core,” says Dr. Guyer, noting this means strengthening almost everywhere. “It’s all the muscles front, back, and around your trunk, around your hips, [and] from your knees to your chest. Those are all the core muscles.”

A Healthy Weight Stresses Your Spine Less

Beyond physical stressors, says Dr. Guyer, “I think the most important thing is to maintain proper weight.” He adds, “We’ve become very lazy. We’ve adapted more and more to a sedentary lifestyle.”

“The [COVID-19 pandemic] definitely hasn’t helped,” Dr. Guyer acknowledges. The mostly at-home quarantine means a much more sedentary lifestyle for almost everyone. Add in emotional factors like boredom, anxiety, even depression causing excessive noshing, and weight gain explodes, increasing Indeed experts now use the term “Quarantine 15,” meaning that some Americans have gained 15 pounds since COVID confinement.

Lifestyle Issues Can Slow Down Degenerative Disc Disease

Is DDD totally preventable? “We’re not at that stage yet,” says Dr. Guyer. “We’re detecting some genetics, but unfortunately you can’t do a genetic screen and [learn if] you’ll be predisposed.” Sorry, but you can’t yet know if you’re someone who should particularly implement a preventive lifestyle, let alone get a medicine to prevent degenerative damage.

Instead, since for now aging means we’re all at risk, experts agree it’s smart for everyone to implement that healthy lifestyle. Keep getting educated on external factors that can slow disc degeneration. Then start implementing tools for avoiding weight gain even in regular times, and also learning proper posture and lifting.

If you smoke, now is the time to stop.  Smoking, in effect, accelerates the aging process by drying out tissue, including your discs. It’s called desiccation, and it’s why smoking is a top risk factor for DDD.

Understand, anything that stresses your discs for any length of time, even seemingly helpful postures, can ultimately bring pain back. For example, standing too long—even when you’re carefully standing straight—can actually induce pain. (Picture a supermarket cashier, for example.)

Sitting can help, but you need to be careful here too. Sitting too long puts much more pressure on your low back than when you're standing.

The best option? Experts suggest getting up and moving every 20 to 30 minutes. This could be a good time to get up and do in-home walking exercises. Make sure you do some regular bending and stretching. There are so many free online options, ranging from pictures of basic exercise stances to actual videos to follow.  Add them to your Bookmarks, or sites like Pinterest, and make sure you check out and use at least one every day

While no one can totally prevent degenerative disc disease, the good news is that everyone—even those genetically prone to greater disc loss or fusion—can find easy options for slowing down and even minimizing disc damage. Get to and maintain a healthy weight, strengthen your core, and learn proper techniques for lifting and for any exercises or sports you engage in.

Of course always check with your doctor before beginning any movement program. If you’ve been diagnosed with a distinctive disc degeneration, ask your doctor and/or a physical therapist about the most careful ways to get moving. They’ll be able to direct you to programs specifically designed to help others like you.

Updated on: 07/22/21
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Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease
Richard D. Guyer, MD
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Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

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