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Degenerative Disc Disease Physiotherapy: Symptoms & Treatment

Degenerative disc disease is a common condition characterized by the deterioration of the intervertebral discs in the spine, leading to pain and functional limitations. Physiotherapy interventions such as exercise therapy and manual therapy have been shown to be effective in managing symptoms and improving physical function in patients with degenerative disc disease.

As with all injuries, this information is simply a guide, and it is always best to check in with a Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist to have a personalized assessment and hear recommendations for what you and your body may specifically need.

Do you suffer from back pain that may be caused by degenerative disc disease? Physiotherapy is a non-surgical treatment option that can help alleviate the pain and restore mobility. An estimated 30% of people aged 30-50 years old have some degree of disc space degeneration, and physiotherapy is often seen as the best course of action for these individuals. In this article, we will explore the benefits of physiotherapy for degenerative disc disease.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease is an age-related condition of the intervertebral discs. The intervertebral discs are the shock-absorbing rings that sit between the bones of the vertebrae in your spine.  While everyone will experience some degeneration of the intervertebral discs with time, the pain, symptoms and amount of degeneration will differ between people.

An intervertebral disc has two main parts. The nucleus is a jelly-like cushion that acts as a shock absorber, and as spacer between the vertebrae allowing for comfortable movement and providing a space for nerve roots to exit from the spinal cord and branch out to the body’s nerve network. The annulus is a dense outer compartment that contains the nucleus, regulating its movement.

When we are young, the intervertebral discs are made up mostly of water. As we age, the discs begin to dehydrate which reduces their effectiveness in absorbing shock and providing space and increases the possibility of damage to the annulus layer. In most cases, this is not painful.

Degenerative Disc Disease can become painful when the degeneration of the discs progresses to the point that space is reduced, restricting normal movement biomechanics and the ability of nerve roots to exit the spinal cord without impingement. Typically pain results from pressure on the nerves themselves or the associated inflammation, muscle spasm and instabilities surrounding the affected discs.

Degenerative disc disease can happen in any part of the spine, but is most common in the neck, or cervical spine, and lower back, or lumbar spine.  In the neck, the increased likelihood is due to this being the most mobile area of our spine.  The lower back has the next largest amount of mobility, but also takes the weight of the entire upper body.  In contrast the mid back, or thoracic spine, does not degenerate as quickly as it has less mobility and foundational support to provide.

What Does a Degenerative Disc Disease Feel Like?

Typical symptoms of degenerative disc disease in the lower back or lumbar spine include:

  • Lower back pain radiating into the legs, hips, and buttocks
  • Pain aggravated by bending, lifting, twisting or long periods of sitting
  • Relief is found by changing position, walking, or lying down
  • Sensation of pins and needles or numbness down one or both legs

Typical symptoms of degenerative disc disease in the neck or cervical spine include:

  • Pain down the arm or into the hand
  • Pain aggravated by head forward posture, long periods in the same position or specific positions that cause a further narrowing of the space in which nerves run
  • Relief is found by changing position, focusing on posture, walking, or lying down
  • Sensation of pins and needles or numbness down the arm or into the hand

How is a Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosed?

Degenerative disc disease can be diagnosed with X-rays sometimes or MRIs if the x-ray is unclear. Everyone’s discs will age over time but with the right care, your back pain can be decreased.

How Can Physiotherapy Help with Degenerative Disc Disease?

Pain Management

Your Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist will work with you to reduce inflammation and restore the proper alignment of your joints. Better alignment will mean less pressure on the nerves exiting your spinal cord and therefore less pain.

Registered Massage Therapy can also be of help in degenerative disc disease to help loosen tight muscles around the spine and restore better mobility to the joints.

Restoring Mobility and Core Strength and Stability

Your Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist can provide you with a customized exercise program to work on the range of motion and strength required to control and stabilize your spine. A strong focus on core and spinal stability will be key. We will help you regain your function and manage your symptoms. We cannot reverse degeneration, but it is very possible to be symptom free even with degenerative disc disease.

Return to Activities of Daily Living

It is important to stay active and maintain strength as we age to prevent the recurrence of pain to be able to live an active lifestyle. We are here to help you with an exercise plan that will be effective and best suited to the lifestyle you enjoy. Our main goal at Inertia Physio+ is to return you to the activities you love!

What are the best exercises to help with Degenerative Disc Disease?

Core Activation

Lie on your back with your knees bent. This can be done in any position once you understand it.
Place your fingers just in and down from your hip bones so you can monitor the muscle contraction.
To engage the pelvic floor muscles, pull up inside as if you were stopping yourself from peeing.
To engage the transverse abdominus muscle you can picture a line connecting your hip bones and try to connect them or draw gently your belly button in towards your spine.
Make sure that your superficial abdominals stay relaxed and that you continue to breathe.
Finally, contract your gluts, by squeezing your bum muscles. Activation for Degenerative Disc Disease

Glute Bridges

Lie on your back with your knees bent.
Contract your core and gluts as taught. Use the gluts to lift you and squeeze them at the top of the movement.
Slowly return to the initial position and repeat. for Degenerative Disc Disease

Gentle Range of Motion - Cat Cow

Start on all fours with hands underneath the shoulders.
Round the back and let the head and neck drop while trying to get the head and pelvis as close as possible.

Lift the head and chest simultaneously while letting the stomach sink and the lower back arch to perform the cat.
Do not force the end range of motion as this is not a stretch. Be very gentle with this range of motion through your spine.
Repeat. cow for Degenerative Disc Disease cow for Degenerative Disc Disease

Core Fallout

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your lower back in neutral position (slightly arched).
Engage your core by recruiting your pelvic floor and transverse abdominis.
Maintain a steady abdominal breathing while you open one leg to one side, keeping your lower back and the other leg completely still.
Return to the middle and repeat with the other leg. exercise for Degenerative Disc Disease

Core Dead Bug

Lie on your back with knees and hips bent to 90° and both arms vertical.
Contract your core and gluts to prevent any movement through your core as you move your arms and legs.
Lower one leg and the opposite arm toward the floor and return to the starting position under control.
Repeat with the other leg and opposite arm. exercise for Degenerative Disc Disease

Bird Dog

Get on your hands and knees with your knees directly under your hips and your hands directly under your shoulders.
Your back is straight and your chin must be tucked in.
Contract your core and glut muscles and then lift one arm and the opposite leg without allowing the trunk or pelvis to move or rotate.
Try to grab something far away in front of you with your hand and touch an imaginary wall far behind you with your foot instead of just lifting them up.
Lower your leg and arm back to the floor and repeat with the other leg and the opposite arm. dog for Degenerative Disc Disease

How Can you Prevent Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative Disc Disease is, as its name indicates, an degenerative condition. As such, the main factors in its onset is age and wear and tear over a lifetime. It can be difficult to prevent what is naturally and genetically going to occur. However, being cognizant of back health throughout a lifetime and treating your back well by moving correctly, not over stressing your back with heavy loads or constant sitting and staying strong and mobile would be some of the best ways to protect yourself from this degenerative condition.

What is the fastest way to heal Degenerative Disc Disease?

While Degenerative Disc Disease will never heal from the degeneration that has already taken place, it can be very possible to reach a symptom free point and live your life normally with Degenerative Disc Disease. The key factor would be to work with a trained professional like a Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist and follow a detailed core strengthening program. The strength and stability in your core is the best "brace" you can give your back to support the degenerating discs of the spine and will need to be done every day. Working to improve your mobility and receiving some symptom relief through traction and manual therapy with your Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist will also be key.

Contact Us For Help

Inertia Physio+ offers Kanata and Stittsville exceptional Physiotherapy, Athletic Therapy and Registered Massage Therapy with private treatment rooms, one on one care, a maximum of two patients per hour and treatment focused on the evidence-based practices of manual and exercise therapy. Don’t suffer any longer.  If you have pain or injury, our Kanata and Stittsville Physiotherapy, Athletic Therapy, and Registered Massage Therapy team is here to help you get back to living pain-free life and activities.  Please reach out to us at (613) 672-2200 or for an appointment today! You are also welcome to book online. We also offer direct billing on Physiotherapy and Massage Therapy services whenever your plan allows.


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