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Degenerative Disc Disease: What You Can Do To Slow It Down

Low back pain is one of the leading causes of disability and missed work days. It is also one of the most common reasons that people see their doctor. One of the most common causes of low back pain, and one of the most misunderstood causes, is degenerative disc disease.

This article explores degenerative disc disease, looks at what it is, and offers some suggestions on what you can do to slow it down.

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease, but rather it is an age-related condition that is caused by the natural wear and tear on the spinal discs.

Over time, the discs between the vertebrae of the spinal column deteriorate, or break down. This deterioration makes the spine unstable which then results in several different symptoms, with pain generally being the primary concern for those suffering from the condition.

Levels of pain can range from mild discomfort (low level chronic pain) to severely debilitating acute pain. DDD can also cause pain that radiates down the leg, leading to weakness and numbness. Over time, it can also lead to other conditions in the body, like osteoarthritis.

The areas that are generally the most susceptible to disc degeneration are the ones that endure the most motion and stress, namely the neck and lower back.

Over time, disc degeneration can lead to conditions like osteoarthritis.

Degenerative Disc Disease - How Age Affects Our Spine

Over time, it is quite common to experience some degeneration (breakdown) of the spinal discs, but not everyone will experience pain along with it. The discs in your spine act as shock absorbers between your vertebrae and, as these shock absorbers get worn down with age, it is natural for the spine to lose some of its flexibility.

When this flexibility is lost our discs are more susceptible to tears and ruptures with even simplest of movements like twisting or straining. This can cause a herniated disc.

Generally most people don’t have symptoms from herniated discs, but if you are experiencing severe pain, then it is a good idea to see your healthcare provider. Disc herniations can be serious and, although it is very rare, they can even cause paralysis.

Degenerative disc disease is an age-related condition that is caused by the natural wear and tear on the spinal discs

What Can Cause Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is part of our body’s natural aging process but there are some genetic, health, and lifestyle factors that can potentially accelerate this process.

Some things that can put additional strain on our discs, causing them to experience wear and tear faster than they otherwise would include:

People often wonder if major traumas can trigger DDD. While it is rare for DDD to start from major traumas like car accidents, some experts believe that sudden injuries like falls can cause herniated discs and thereby start the degeneration process.

There are also certain things that can happen to our discs to change their structure or damage them prematurely. Our spinal discs consist of a tough outer wall that surrounds a soft inner core. Sometimes changes can occur that compromise the structure of our discs.

Tears in our disc walls can cause the soft core to push through and press on the nerves of the spine, causing pain. This is called a bulged or herniated disc.

Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease

  1. Cracks: Tears in our disc walls can cause the soft core to push through and press on the nerves of the spine, causing pain. This is called a bulged or herniated disc and it can happen from the smallest movements or even minor injuries as we get older.

  2. Dehydration: Yes, this is a thing! Your back can get dehydrated! (see our blog on dehydration and low back pain.) Because our discs are made mostly of water, when we are dehydrated our discs shrink and lose some of their ability to absorb shocks.

Our spine discs are made mostly of water, when we are dehydrated our discs shrink and lose some of their ability to absorb shocks.

Diagnosing Degenerative Disc Disease

When it comes to deciding what is DDD and what isn't DDD, unfortunately there seems to be some disagreement among doctors.

The symptoms of DDD are often intermittent and tend to accumulate over the years, with some rather non-specific symptoms, so it can be difficult for doctors to track the degeneration over time. This means that they can sometimes miss diagnosing the condition.

Doctors will generally rely on the following to try and make a definitive diagnosis:

  • Medical history (pain severity over time, its impact on functioning)

  • A physical examination of the spine

  • Imaging tests such as an MRI (it can show tears, herniated discs or disc dehydration)

It can be difficult for doctors to track disc degeneration through the years so the condition is often misdiagnosed.

Signs of Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease doesn’t always cause pain, but pain is one of the main symptoms that ends up driving sufferers to consult with their healthcare provider.

  1. Pain that comes and goes.

  2. Pain that feels worse when you sit, and feels better when you are moving about.

  3. Pain that gets better when you lie down or change a position.

  4. Pain that feels worse when you twist, bend or lift things.

  5. Pain that is mainly located in your lower back, glutes or upper thighs.

  6. Radiating pain

  7. Sharp, stabbing pains (can be in the hands, shoulders, arms or hips and glutes).

  8. Muscle spasms (can be acutely painful and highly debilitating)

As the degeneration of the discs gets worse, pain also gets worse.

Stages of Degenerative Disc Disease:

As we have mentioned above, degenerative disc disease often happens over a long period of time. This means that there are some different stages that the disease moves through over that time. Here are the stages.

Stage 1: Individuals might start to experience some episodes of acute pain. There isn’t much damage to the structure of the spine yet, but some imbalance might be starting to occur. There might be some dehydration of the discs and maybe even some bulging and tearing.

Stage 2: Increasing episodes of pain. The spine is losing some of its stability as the discs start to thin out and become more rigid. At this stage there are no changes to the vertebrae yet.

Stage 3: Because the discs have been dehydrated for some time now they aren’t giving the vertebrae the cushioning and support that they need. Bony spurs start developing on the edge of the vertebrae as they start to experience friction (rubbing against each other). The spurs start putting pressure on the spinal cord and this starts causing more intense and long lasting experiences of pain.

Regular exercise is one way to slow down degenerative disc disease.

What Can You Do To Prevent Degenerative Disc Disease?

Luckily there is some good news when it comes to degenerative disc disease. You can slow down disc deterioration through some natural approaches to care. Most cases will not require surgery and there are some simple things that you can incorporate into your daily routine to slow down the progression of this disease.

1. Exercise

Engaging in regular, low impact aerobic exercise can help slow down DDD. Exercises like swimming and walking not only help to relieve the pain by producing natural, pain-relieving endorphins, but they can also help manage body weight and increase your strength and mobility.

Anti inflammatory medications can help with the pain associated with degenerative disc disease.

2. Medication

Your healthcare provider might recommend medication to help fight inflammation. Over the counter pain killers like ibuprofen and aspirin can help to relieve pain and reduce inflammation that can cause degenerative disc disease.

It is important to note that medication generally only works to relieve pain and doesn't address the underlying causes of low back pain.

Steroid shots into the epidural space of your back can help with degenerative disc disease.

3. Steroid Shots

If you are experiencing a significant amount of inflammation and swelling in your back your doctor might recommend steroid shots.

Steroid shots are most commonly injected directly into the epidural space in your back, or directly into the muscles or nerves, depending on where the inflammation is happening. They can bring about some temporary relief that can last anywhere from a few months to almost a year.

Following an anti inflammatory food diet can help slow down degenerative disc disease.

4. Diet

Following a diet that is rich in anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce inflammation in the body that is often associated with DDD.

Foods like berries, salmon, flaxseed, chia seeds and spinach are all full of antioxidants that can help slow down the aging process in our body. On rhe flip side there are foods that can make inflammation worse and those should be avoided or eaten in moderation.

You can either speak to your healthcare provider or see a nutritionist to get more information on incorporating some of the delicious foods into your daily diet.

Physical therapy can help those suffering from degenerative disc disease.

5. Physical therapy

Physical therapy is often viewed as the gold standard for low back pain management. Your doctor may recommend a course of physical therapy in order to strengthen the muscles in your back or neck.

Working with a physical therapist can not only help you address certain muscles, but it can also help keep your spine flexible. If you can't afford physical therapy or if your insurance won't cover it you can explore some of the new digital physical therapy options that are available.

Surgery can sometimes be an option for degenerative disc disease but it is a last option.

6. Surgery

As a last resort your doctor may recommend that you have surgery for your spine. A specific procedure, known as a discectomy, can take pressure off your nerves by removing the damaged part of the disc.

If your degeneration is particularly advanced, spine surgeons can also fuse the bones in your spine after removing the disc to help stabilize the spine, or they can remove the disc and put in an artificial one.

Following a healthy lifestyle can help slow down degenerative disc disease.


While most of us will experience some sort of disc degeneration as we get older, it is good to know that there are some simple things that we can do in our daily lives to slow down this progression.

Avoiding excess alcohol, not using products that contain nicotine, drinking lots of water, following a healthy diet, and staying active are all things that can have a dramatic increase on how fast, or slow, our discs experience wear and tear.

By incorporating a few healthy habits into your daily routine could have huge benefits on your health in the future. After all, as they often say in yoga, you are only as young as your spine!


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