Been told you have degenerative disc disease? This sounds scary, but I’ll explain why it shouldn’t freak you out, and what to do about it.
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
It happens far too often to people with low back pain. They go to their doc, get some imaging, and are told they have “degenerative disc disease” (DDD) or “disc degeneration” and are understandably worried.
Then, they’re told the only real options are pain meds or spinal surgery.
If this has happened to you, it’s usually no big cause for concern and there are other options for easing your back pain.
Because here’s the thing: EVERYONE WHO HAS BEEN ALIVE A FEW DECADES HAS DISC DEGENERATION!
That’s right, research has estimated that…
- 37% of people in their 20’s
- 52% of people in their 30’s
- 68% of people in their 40’s
- 80% of people in their 50’s
Have evidence of disc degeneration on imaging, with many showing ZERO symptoms. 
The takeaway is this:
Disc Degeneration Doesn’t Equal Low Back Pain!
If you have low back pain, it’s best to look to the actual root causes since many people who have degenerated discs don’t have back pain and vice versa.
First, it’s a good idea to understand what exactly we’re talking about from an anatomical perspective.
Your intervertebral discs are fibrous, gel-filled discs that sit between the bony vertebrae of your spine. Overtime, with the constant forces going through your spine as you move around and live life, these discs are going to start to shrink a bit.
They dry up and get a little shorter naturally. This reduced space may cause symptoms, including pinched nerves or muscle spasms, but it may not cause any issues at all.
Regardless, there are things you can do to help prevent accelerated disc issues and ease any back pain you already have.
How to Avoid Making Disc Degeneration Worse
While your discs will naturally degenerate over time, there are several habits that can accelerate the process.
A big one is your posture.
If you’ve got an excessive hunchback posture, or thoracic kyphosis, you’re putting extra pressure on the anterior portions of your thoracic discs.
And everything in your spine is connected. Improper posture in your T-spine usually leads to compensation and improper posture in the lumbar spine – excessive lumbar lordosis, or sway back. So you’ll usually end up with extra pressure on the posterior portion of your lumbar discs as well!
This extra pressure (especially on the bigger discs of the lumbar spine) can speed disc deterioration and cause painful issues like disc herniation. Nerves can get irritated as they leave the spine and you might get pain that radiates down the legs.
To avoid this whole mess, really focus your attention on correcting your posture. It’s easy to ignore when you’re busy and hunched over a computer all day, but simply making it a point to check in on your posture as you’re working then correcting it is a start.
Then, do this exercise to get the muscles that shut off when you’re rounded forward working and strong:
Another contributor to accelerated disc degeneration is excessive, heavy loading of the spine.
If you’re a powerlifter who is regularly doing 400+ pound back squats, you’re putting an awful lot of load on your spine and excess pressure on your discs. That might be a risk you’re willing to take for your sport, but it’s something I would stop and consider especially if you’re not actively competing.
Preventing DDD-Related Back Pain
There are several simple strategies you can take to help you go from a person in pain with a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease to one of the blissfully ignorant majority, who in all likelihood has degeneration, but are asymptomatic and pain-free!
Strategy 1: Work Core Stability
Your core plays a big role in stabilizing the lumbar region. If these muscles aren’t activating and firing properly, your spine might move in ways that it shouldn’t – meaning you might be more prone to painful muscle tweaks and pulls.
This improper or excessive movement can hasten degeneration and wear and tear on the discs. For this reason, working on your core stability can go a long way to improving your back pain and helping prevent future issues.
Strategy 2: Decompress Your Spine
Another strategy to avoid degeneration-related pain is to do some spinal decompression.
Spend some time hanging – either upside down from your feet, if you’ve got a way to do that, or just from a bar. As you do this, gravity will pull your body down, stretching out your spine and giving those discs a little extra breathing room.
Opening up the space allows fluid to enter back into the discs, so it’s a great way to promote healthy intervertebral discs.
If hanging doesn’t sound fun to you, you can also get some spinal decompression by lying with your back over a swiss ball.
Strategy 3: Train Spinal Mobility
Once you’ve worked on creating a protective, stable core (and aren’t experiencing an exacerbation of back pain that increases with movement), it’s time to think about spinal mobility.
Just like any other tissues in your body, your discs respond and grow stronger when they have appropriate stresses imposed upon them.
While excessive forces from poor posture can lead to degeneration, smart, progressive forces can improve the strength of your spine – just like you can improve the strength of your muscles with a good weightlifting program.
And like I mentioned above, opening up the space in your spine helps encourage fluid back into the discs. Decompression isn’t the only way to accomplish this – movement of the spine can act like a pump that brings in fluid.
A great, simple spinal mobility exercise is the cat-camel, where you move from gentle spinal flexion to gentle spinal extension.
I’ve got a thorough breakdown of a pumped-up version of the exercise above. As outlined in the video, this technique will not only improve your spinal mobility, it’ll also fire up the deep stabilizers required for attaining and maintaining good posture all day.
Remember that your spine is designed to move – even if you’ve been given a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease. So work core stability, but then make sure you’re encouraging spinal mobility as well.
The Bottom Line of Disc Degeneration
I understand, it can be totally freaky to be told your spine is degenerating. But try to remember that degeneration is inevitable with time. And, a whole lot of people out there have the same degeneration, but no pain.
The difference between those with back pain and those without often boils down to posture, core stability, and movement patterns – all things you can address!
If you want to dive into a comprehensive plan of attack, check out my Spine Control program. This program starts with a foundation of core stability, then builds into dynamic movement and spinal mobility. It’s a great way to reduce back pain, prevent future issues, and reduce excessive degeneration.