If you’ve been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, it helps to know that you’re not alone. Over 40 percent of people over 40 have one or more degenerated spinal discs. This risk grows proportionate to your age – meaning, by age 60, about 60 percent of your peers likely have a degenerated disc. It’s not exclusive to older people, either – over a third of adults aged 20 or above have at least one degenerated disc. Despite this, DDD should be taken seriously. This includes adjustments to your personal life as there are many things to avoid with degenerative disc disease.
Disc degeneration is a vague term. It does not necessarily refer to a slipped or herniated disc, nor does it mean that the disc is on the verge of dislocating, as during spondylolisthesis. Instead, DDD refers to any disc that has significantly lost volume due to dehydration, tissue degeneration, and wear-and-tear. The disc is still there, and it isn’t in any state of acute distress. But it has been weathered by physical stress, genetics, and lifestyle factors.
The weaker a disc becomes, the less it can do its job as a flexible joint between spines and a shock absorber for your body, putting you at more significant risks. These risks include disc herniation, swelling, spinal stenosis, and accompanying neuropathic pain as the nerve roots around your spine face compression. There are essential dos and don’ts to keep your discs healthy, improve your pain symptoms, speed up recovery, and minimize the risk of related disorders, from osteoarthritis to painful bone spurs.
Things to Avoid With Degenerative Disc Disease
The human spine is composed of bony vertebrae and interwoven spinal discs. These tough yet flexible discs have a more rigid outer shell and a soft center. Over time, these discs lose their flexibility with dehydration and tissue degeneration – because there’s relatively little blood flow going to these discs, they adapt to stress very slowly and don’t heal quickly.
Things that further reduce or slow blood flow, reduce tissue regeneration, reduce bone density, and actively impair or stress a disc are things to avoid with degenerative disc disease. They lead to more pain and related disorders, such as disc herniation or a narrowed spinal canal. Here are a few quick examples:
Excessive Caffeine Consumption
Caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive drug in the world. In relatively low doses, there’s nothing wrong with it. It seems to play a role in improving longevity and can help you improve your blood pressure with old age. But among its side effects, caffeine can leech the calcium deposits in your bone and actively undermine your spinal health. If your diet is not very calcium- and vitamin D-rich to begin with, or if you have a family history of osteoporosis, consider reducing your caffeine intake and see if it helps.
Between cigarettes and coffee, coffee is undoubtedly the lesser evil when it comes to bone health, back pain, and spinal conditions. The problem with smoking isn’t just general bone health and bone density – smoking actively inhibits cartilage growth and rapidly contributes to the deterioration of your cartilage. Quit smoking as soon as you can.
A Low-Quality Diet
The media tells us repeatedly that the standard American diet is unhealthy, but if you haven’t changed the way you eat just yet, you should treat a diagnosis of DDD as your wake-up call. Adjusting your diet to reduce processed meals and greatly stock up on fresh leafy greens, legumes, and a greater variety of colored fruits and vegetables can do wonders for overall health, including your spine and general bone health.
Explosive Contact Sports
Exercise is the ideal medicine for degenerative disc disease, but we must be picky with what we do and how we do it. Avoid explosive high-impact sports, including combat sports/martial arts and football. Joint-friendly sports like slow hikes and swimming will improve your pain. If you enjoy weightlifting, be careful with your load management, and work with a rehab specialist or an experienced coach.
Don’t take things too easy. It’s generally a good idea to progress with your physical strength, increase your muscle mass, and get stronger. This helps to reduce the daily stress and impact on your spine and joints. But there’s a line between constructive progression and physical degeneration.
Rest is good. But too much rest can actively hamper your recovery and make the subsequent injury or pain episode more likely. Don’t let a diagnosis of DDD keep you on the couch or in bed. You need to support your spine with a healthier diet and better movement rather than allowing your body further stagnate. Talk to your doctor about a personalized exercise plan to help rehabilitate yourself and build strength.
Tips for Degenerative Disc Disorder
While we’ve gone over the things you shouldn’t do, let’s recap the things you should do:
- Strengthen your body regularly. Focus on stronger core musculature and an overall healthier physique.
- Lower your body weight. Excessive weight can affect your back and joints and make everyday movements more likely to strain and pain.
- Get a good night’s rest every night. Never underestimate the power of good sleep. If you struggle to sleep well with your back pain, check in with your doctor and find ways to help address your sleep hygiene.
- A balanced diet goes a long way. You don’t have to swear off cake and ice cream for the rest of your life. But increase the number of lean meats, fish, leafy greens, and legumes in your diet. If you frequently struggle with indigestion or other issues, consider working with a nutritionist to create a personalized dietary plan.
- Please don’t wait until it’s too late. Sudden pains, new strains, or aches sign that you should see a professional. You may have felt a compression fracture in your spine or slipped a disc. Getting a diagnosis and professional treatment as early as possible can significantly speed up your recovery.
- Seek help early. See a medical professional when you experience any signs or symptoms of fever, loss of feeling or mobility, or loss of bowel control or bladder control. These are the signs of an emergency and require immediate attention.
The body is not the most fragile thing in the world. Given the proper factors, you can slow your degenerative disc disease and augment your pain significantly through lifestyle interventions. As the name implies, a degenerative disc disease is not a reversible condition. You will be unable to renew lost cartilage or make your spine as good as new. But that does not mean that the best to hope for is that things don’t get worse.
While degenerative disc disease usually implies that a disc will continue to deteriorate over time, the pain gets better as your condition stabilizes. There are many things to avoid with degenerative disc disease mentioned earlier that can slow the process and help reduce the chances of pain further down the road. The right approach to your physical and mental health can significantly improve your condition and help you feel better than you might have felt in many years.
If your doctor tells you you have a degenerative disc disease, know that not all is lost. You can do plenty of things to help improve your symptoms at home. When all else is said and done, professional treatments can also help address and reduce pain (through localized interventions, such as nerve blocks and anti-inflammatory injections) and step in in emergencies to stabilize the spine (through fusion surgery, for example).