Living with Degenerative Disc Disease

Living with Degenerative Disc Disease

The vast majority of people with lower back pain and/or sciatica symptoms from lumbar degenerative disc disease will be able to successfully manage their pain and avoid surgery. Indeed, over 90% of individuals specifically diagnosed with degenerative disc disease will find that their low back pain and other symptoms go away or subside with three months.

But even patients whose pain does not subside within three months can undertake a range of actions—including a number of self-care activities—to manage their pain. Furthermore, the pain of disc degeneration usually subsides with time—by age 60 a degenerated disc will have stabilized and will usually not be painful. Consequently, the goal for patients living with degenerative disc disease should be to control their low back pain and other symptoms enough to maintain their ability to function in everyday activities and if possible avoid major surgery.

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This article identifies the four key components of a self-care program patients can undertake to manage the pain of degenerative disc disease, and describes actions that can be incorporated into daily routines, including:

  • Pain management and treatment
  • Exercise and active rehabilitation
  • Behavioral and activity modifications
  • Improved nutrition

Control the Pain of Degenerative Disc Disease

The first objective for patients is to control their pain enough so that they can perform everyday activities and engage in active physical therapy and exercise. Quick steps to control pain include:

  • Applying ice to muscles that are painful after activity or exercise will help control pain and inflammation. Using ice packs on the lower back for 10 minutes can be a cost-effective, easy approach to take at home. Having ready-made packs in the freezer will allow patients to grab one quickly when needed.
  • Alternatively, a heating pad or moist heat compresses (a moistened towel warmed in a microwave is easy to make) can relax muscles or joints around the degenerated disc that have tightened up. Warm muscles make stretching and exercise easier, and decrease the chance of injury.
  • Taking over-the counter medication such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Advil or Motrin) can decrease the inflammation around the degenerated disc. Pain can also be treated with acetaminophen pain relievers such as Tylenol.

For pain that doesn't respond to over-the-counter medications and home remedies, stronger anti-inflammatory medications can be prescribed (such as COX-2 inhibitors) or administered directly into the low back (e.g., epidural injections) for pain relief.

Patients can also take advantage of alternative therapies like massage therapy, acupuncture or chiropractic manipulation to relieve tightness and decrease pain.

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Article written by: J. Talbot Sellers, DO