Spine experts know that by age 40 most people will have some level of disc degeneration. For some, this process will become degenerative disc disease, the symptoms of which can range from mild discomfort to severe and debilitating pain.
watch: Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease Video
We've broken down a few treatment options to help you navigate which one will work best for you.
Exercise relieves pain
Most people don't associate exercise with pain relief, but when it comes to degenerative disc disease, exercise is an elixir of sorts. It spurs blood flow and builds the supporting structures around the affected disc so that the impact of degeneration is lessened.
Of course, if you are in pain, it's hard to start exercising in the first place. Before you begin, find a way to control the pain temporarily.
Patients who can achieve this balance—keeping their pain to a manageable level that allows them to pursue an effective exercise and stretching routine—will often find that they can manage their pain well enough, continue to enjoy most everyday activities, and avoid major surgery.
See Understanding Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease
Control your pain.
Many people with disc degeneration need to both control pain and reduce the inflammation around the affected disc.
- Sometimes, simply applying ice or a cold pack can do the trick.
- Additionally, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as Aleve or Advil, when coupled with a pain reliever such as Tylenol, can provide significant relief.
- If pain persists, stronger prescription medications may be considered. Just be sure about appropriate dosage and possible side effects before you start taking any medicine.
Once your pain is relieved, you can begin to...
Improving muscle support through strength and resistance exercises, plus maintaining heart health and a healthy weight through cardio exercise, are all components of a pain relief plan.
Remaining flexible through stretching, particularly for the hamstring muscles and hip flexors, will also help.
Make everyday lifestyle changes
While it may seem obvious, subtle everyday changes can add up to significant pain relief for those with degenerated discs, and cost little in terms of time or money.
Modify or stop activities that hurt the back.
It may be hard to give up the Saturday basketball game or scale back on golf, but doing so will minimize twisting the back. The same goes for lifting large or heavy objects.
In general, avoid or minimize any activities that make your back feel worse.
Use tools to support your back.
In the past few years, many companies have designed ergonomic chairs, mattresses, and car seat attachments that are geared toward helping those with back pain achieve better alignment and posture, thus relieving pain. A little research may help you find a product that works for you.
Consider surgery if you fail the "everyday activities" test
No one looks forward to surgery, but sometimes it can be the best option to address severe pain and disability from degenerative disc disease.
A key question to ask yourself (expect your doctor to ask you too) is: are you making significant concessions in how you do—or whether you do—everyday activities because of the pain?
- Does the ability to do such everyday tasks such as shopping for groceries and putting them away, picking up children, driving, or sitting at work significantly impact your quality of life?
- Can you sleep at night? Pain that is bad enough to disrupt your sleep can also be an indicator that it may be time to consider surgery.
Not being able to engage in everyday activities may mean that it's time to consider discussing your options with a spine surgeon.
And one final point: don't stop looking for the treatment that works for you. We hear from people in our forums, Facebook, and Twitter communities every day that had to try several different treatments before they found the one—or the combination—that worked best for them.