You may be able to prevent degenerative disc disease from getting worse by implementing a few lifestyle adjustments.
Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is mostly an age-related process, so it can't be prevented entirely. It happens when the shock-absorbing cushion located between adjacent spinal vertebrae (bones) deteriorates. DDD is usually the first event in a cascade of changes that may lead to arthritis and possible complications such asspinal stenosis.
This article discusses how to prevent degenerative disc disease from progressing. It explains the latest scientific research and provides tips for preserving spine health and slowing the progression of DDD.
Live an Active Life and Include Exercise
Ask any spine specialist about the one thing you can do to slow the progression of degenerating discs and they’ll likely tell you to stretch. Basically, this translates to taking your joints through a full range of motion and doing so regularly.
The second most helpful thing they’ll likely suggest is strengthening your muscles, particularly back and core (abdominal) muscles.
And finally, they’ll probably direct you to get regular aerobic activity, with walking as the first choice.
If walking doesn’t give you pain, try to include it in your regular program. Walking is pretty easy on the joints overall, but it still helps increase circulation and muscle endurance,and it's good for your heart.
The American Council on Exercise recommends taking a 30-minute walk (or other aerobic activity) about five times per week as a way of generally supporting your health.
But if walking does result in pain, working out in water may provide an alternative.As degenerative changes progress, joint movement may at some point become “bone on bone,” which means the disc and its shock-absorbing capacity have eroded away. In this case, land-based exercise may increase your pain.
Working out in water is great because it takes much of the load out of the equation. Most communities offer water exercise classes at a variety of levels of difficulty.
Avoid Over Twisting
You may need to minimize or avoid twisting and bending actions when you work out. This is not an excuse to skip exercise, but you may need to review your program with a licensed, qualified professional to be sure it’s notfurthering the development of your DDD.
Employ Proper Body Mechanics
No discussion on exercise is complete without a chat about body mechanics, which refers to the way we carry ourselves when we move our bodies.
Employing proper body mechanics can go a long way toward maintaining properfit between the bones that comprise your joints; this is key for slowing degenerative changes over the long haul.
Minding your mechanics is also an excellent way to establish a balance between the muscle groups that are designed to move those joints. Muscle balance is one of several key contributors to disc and spine wellness. It helps reduce or avoid undue pressure on joints.
A lack of muscle balance throughout the body generally translates to increased joint wear and tear, which is the main precursor to arthritic, degenerative changes that take place in the spine as we age.
Unfortunately, manypeople don’t make the effort to learn about body mechanics. It may feel easier and/or more convenient to keep moving the same old way,
Some strategies for employing proper body mechanics include:
- Engaging your legs, hip joints, and the pelvic bone instead of your spinal structures when doing common movements or engaging in activities such as gardening or exercise
- Practicing pilates or yoga, which trains the body and mind to stay in alignment while moving
- Maintaining good posture when you sit, which helps you have good form when you're moving
It’s well known that smoking is associated with numerous health problems. And disc degeneration is among them.
Studies show that smoking tobacco affects discs in more than one way, as well as in more than one area. For example, a 2015 study published in thejournal PLoSfound at least two mechanisms by which smoking might damage discs.
Not only does smoking decrease rebuilding activity that takes place at the edges of the disc, but it also constricts blood vessels, which deliver nutrients to the disc.
The smoking habit may also make your back pain worse. In general, it’s believed that smoking increases pain perception, though this is still being studied. For example, a 2016 study found that male smokers who underwent major surgery required more pain relievers post-operatively than non-smokers.
Get to and Maintain Your Ideal Weight
If you’re not at your ideal weight, consider getting there. For most of us, this is easier said than done. But carrying less weight on your body means less pressure is being placed on your joints and discs.
A large study published in the Global Spine Journal found that being overweight or obese increased the risk of lumbar disc herniation.
Balance Manual Labor and Being Sedentary
What you do for work matters to your back and your potential for developing DDD. This includes people from all walks of life, from those whosit at computers to manual laborers.
Most experts say that occupations that are neither sedentary nor physically demanding give you the best chance of preventing or slowing degenerative spinal changes.
If you are sedentary, you likely don’t build a lot of muscle strength. But strong muscles may help take the pressure off your discs. Plus, muscle weakness may encourage muscle tension, and this often leads to pain.
If you engage in heavy manual labor, on the other hand, especially if you don’t maintain a balanced strength training program outside of work, you may be more prone to joint strain and wear and tear.
Experts have determined that when possible, we should try to strike a balance between extreme physical exertion and inactivity.
Change Your Diet
With little exception, science has not come up with DDD-specific mechanisms that would likely respond favorably to taking pills or eating certain foods, for that matter.
But using diet and possibly some supplements, including herbs, in a general way may contribute indirectly to the well-being of your discs. Think of the nutrient approachin terms of strategy rather than cure or specific prevention measures.
Foods and supplements that support the musculoskeletal system may help preserve your discs. Likely the most helpful isvitamin D.
A 2016 study involving 110 patients with degenerative disc disease found that nearly halfhad a vitamin D deficiency. (The researchers state that more studies—particularly ones that evaluate a variety of populations—are needed before vitamin D can be definitively recommended, though.) In some studies, vitamin D is also associated with the reduction of fracture risk.
Another nutritional strategy is to try to decrease the amount of inflammation in the body. Scientists are still figuring out the exact role inflammation plays in the development of DDD.
Previously, it was thought that inflammation only had detrimental effects on the disc; but more recently, evidence suggests helpful roles for inflammation. A 2015 study found that inflammation contributes to tissuehomeostasis. Homeostasis is the body’s way of staying in balance and therefore, maintaining health.
It has also been suggested that caffeine intake may play a role in DDD, but there's not enough research on this topic to know for sure.
If other preventative measures don't seem to be working and you are experiencing consistent pain, a healthcare provider may recommend surgery. Surgeries availability to help with degenerative disk disease include:
- Discectomy, which is the most common surgery for DDD and involves removing part of the disc to relieve pressure on the nerve
- Artificial disc replacement, or removing the injured disc and inserting a prosthetic "spacer" into its place
- Spinal fusion, which may be recommended for more severe cases and involves the removal of the disc and the permanent joining of the vertebrae below and above the space where the disc was
Recovery time varies depending on the surgery and your individual circumstances, but people can generally resume every day activities about four weeks after a DDD procedure.
In sum, if you're looking to slow the progression of degenerative disc disease, consider getting away from the computer more often, maintaining a walking and stretching program, eating healthy, and working with your healthcare provider and/or physical therapist to tailor a lifestyle to your specifications.