Degenerative Disease

Spinal discs are the cushions between the vertebrae in your back, which act as shock absorbers and make it possible to bend your spine. They have a cushiony inner core and a harder outer shell. As we age, these discs start to wear. Degenerative disc changes are commonly seen in people beginning around age 30. Even when present, these changes commonly do not cause pain. 

Degenerative disc disease can be associated with low back pain and neck pain. It is also a confusing diagnosis to many people because:

  • It is a condition, rather than a disease, that may cause pain from a damaged disc
  • Over time, any pain that exists will typically improve as the spinal structure matures

Symptoms of lower back or neck pain from degenerative disc disease vary widely. Some people have no symptoms at all, while others experience:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Flare-ups of pain during certain activities
  • Chronic pain, ranging from mild to severe
  • Episodes of intense pain that lasts days or weeks

Back Pain Relief: Self-Care

At Virginia Mason, we can help you learn more about your specific condition and how you can care for yourself over time.

Steps you can try to relieve pain from degenerated discs include:

  • Applying an ice pack to the areas that are painful after activity
  • Applying heat to help warm up muscles and make stretching easier
  • Taking an over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Relieving stress on the lower back by lying down and propping up legs
  • Avoiding sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time
  • Making sure your mattress is comfortable and provides good support while you sleep

You can also slow the rate of disc degeneration by practicing good posture, using chairs with good back support and doing many of the same things that improve overall health, including:

  • Exercising regularly with low-impact activities
  • Doing gentle stretching exercises
  • Drinking plenty of water, especially during and after exercise
  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Cutting down on caffeine
  • Stopping using any products with nicotine
  • Reducing your intake of alcohol

Back Pain Relief: Physical and Occupational Therapy

Physical activity is usually a highly effective treatment for pain from degenerative disc disease. Your physical therapist will design an effective exercise program specifically for you — including ways to move that support long-term back health.

The goals of physical therapy are to safely:

  • Decrease back pain and prevent flare-ups
  • Increase function and flexibility
  • Develop an exercise program you can follow on your own

Should you need them, we also have specially-trained occupational therapists who can teach you how to properly lift, dress, walk and perform other activities.

The overwhelming majority of people with degenerative disc disease can avoid surgery through a combination of self-care, physical therapy and oral medications. If you are a candidate for back surgery, physical therapy before and after surgery is key to having the best possible outcome.

For more information about degenerative disc disease you can contact the Spine Center at Virginia Mason by calling (206) 417-7463.