DEGENERATIVE DISC DISEASE

What is DDD?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) occurs when a spinal disc located between the vertebrae becomes worn out and shrinks in size. You can think of a healthy disc as plush and full. But a degenerated disc is less full and smaller in size. This can cause a couple of different types of pain (see below).

Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

DDD can cause pain. Specifically, two types of pain;


  • Nerve Pain
  • Disc Pain

Nerve pain is generally sensations of tingling, numbness, or burning.

Disc pain is generally a sharp or dull aching of the spine.


In our experience, many people who have nerve pain in the arm or leg will be told they have (DDD). However, there’s one more key distinction we need to make about DDD.


If (DDD) is the root cause of nerve pain it should be felt down both arms (cervical DDD) or both legs (lumbar DDD). This is because the disc will typically wear on both sides of the spine. This will cause symptoms on both sides of the body (i.e. both arms or legs).


If you only feel nerve pain in one arm and not both, it’s more likely you are suffering from a herniated disc in the neck, pinched nerve in the shoulder, a pinched nerve in the neck, or cervical radiculopathy.


If you only feel nerve pain in one leg and not both, it’s more likely you are suffering from sciatica due to lumbar radiculopathy, piriformis syndrome, or a pinched sciatic nerve.

Can a Degenerative Disc Ever Heal?

No, they cannot heal. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot address the pain. In other words, a degenerated disc does not always cause pain when a proper treatment approach is prescribed.

How Common is Degenerative Disc Disease

It is estimated that 40% of people over the age of 40 have at least one degenerated disc. Likewise, 80% of people at age 80 will have at least one degenerated disc. This shows that (DDD) is a normal aging process. The severity of the disease does differ, however. Proper nutrition, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercise is the best approaches to fighting off this natural aging process.

Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment

It is estimated that 40% of people over the age of 40 have at least one degenerated disc. Likewise, 80% of people at age 80 will have at least one degenerated disc. This shows that (DDD) is a normal aging process. The severity of the disease does differ, however. Proper nutrition, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercise is the best approaches to fighting off this natural aging process.

Physical Therapy for Degenerative Disc Disease

Because you cannot heal the degenerated disc, we must focus on diagnosing and fixing other areas of the body. Pain is typically caused because the area that hurts is overworked due to other areas not working properly.


Here is a list of problems we generally find that are associated with DDD pain:

Joint or Muscle Stiffness

A physical therapist should assess your entire body for any joint or muscle stiffness contributing to the problem. For neck or arm pain, we have found that people are generally:

  • Stiff with neck extension (i.e. looking up) and
  • Neck rotation to the affected side
  • The shoulder will also be limited in shoulder flexion (raising your arm)
  • Shoulder internal rotation, and
  • Shoulder extension (reaching behind)

For back or leg pain, we have found that people are generally:

· Stiff with spine extension (bending backward

· Spine rotation to the affected side

· Hip internal rotation

· Hip flexion (knee to chest), and

· Ankle dorsiflexion (flexing the ankle)


A physical therapist should also assess your muscle strength, stability, and overall balance. We have found that people with degenerative disc disease generally have a:


  • Weak rotator cuff (4 shoulder muscles)
  • Weak hip complex (glutes and hip rotator muscles)
  • Poor single leg stability

Other Testing to be Performed:

  • Nerve tension testing
  • Possible referred pain
  • Does degenerative disc disease always cause pain?
  • What is the best thing to do for degenerative disc disease?
  • Can you cure degenerative disc disease?
  • Can you live a normal life with degenerative disc disease?
  • How can I prevent degenerative disc disease from getting worse?
  •  What surgery is done for degenerative disc disease?
  • How long does it take to recover from degenerative disc disease?
  • What is the best exercise for degenerative disc disease?
Does degenerative disc disease always cause pain?

No. In fact, degenerative disc disease has been shown to be a result of normal aging and many people with DDD don't feel any pain. However, the severity of degenerative disc disease does differ from person to person and ranges from neck pain and back pain to pinched nerves. 


Severe DDD can cause tingling, numbness, or burning into the arms or legs depending on where the problem is present (cervical spine vs. lumbar spine, respectively). 


Symptoms should effect BOTH arms or legs, not just one arm or leg. If you don't have symptoms into both arms or legs then it's unlikely that degenerative disc disease is the root problem. 


There are many problems that can cause pain similar to DDD, including: osteoarthritis, cervical radiculopathy, referred pain from the rotator cuff, sciatica, or pirirformis syndrome. Prior to assuming DDD is the cause of your pain we advise you to find a specialist to assess full body movement. It's rare this problem can't be overcome with proper conservative care.

What is the best thing to do for degenerative disc disease?

Keep moving. Improving mobility and strength around the area where the pain is present with reduce the amount of load needed from the spine and disc. If the pain is in the neck then you should also find someone to assess the shoulder as this can absolutely cause pain into the neck if there's movement dysfunction. Likewise, if the pain is felt in the lower back then find someone to assess for movement dysfunctions at the hip. We see many clients who have pain into the neck or lower back who require physical therapy treatment for their shoulder or hip to fix the pain.

Can you cure degenerative disc disease?

No you can't. But that doesn't mean DDD has to cause pain. If you're seeking a solution that doesn't require pain meds, injections, or surgery then find someone who assesses the entire body. Pain is far more complex than a diagnosis. Degenerative disc disease can be managed conservatively and naturally when early intervention is prescribed and a proper program is followed.

Can you live a normal life with degenerative disc disease?

Absolutely. A detailed assessment and treatment program can decrease pain and improve overall function. A continued exercise program is extremely important for long-term relief. We also recommend you find someone who assesses full body movement and addresses any dysfunctions that could be contributing to your pain. Degenerative disc disease can cause pain but there are many other problems that can mimic symptoms similar to DDD.

How can I prevent degenerative disc disease from getting worse?

Regular exercise (including resistance training), a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight are going to be the 3 most important factors for preventing degenerative disc disease from getting worse.

 What surgery is done for degenerative disc disease?

Please contact us before you opt for surgery due to degenerative disc disease. Some surgeons will recommend a spinal fusion but the long-term outcomes with a spinal fusion are associated with significant increase in disability, increased opiate use, and prolonged work loss. 


Other surgeries may include a disc replacement. However, if you're not experiencing pain into both arms or legs then it's extremely unlikely your problem requires surgery. Find a physical therapist who assesses the entire body for all possible causes that are contributing to your pain.

How long does it take to recover from degenerative disc disease?

You cannot cure degenerative disc disease. But you can overcome the pain. Conservative treatment should include improving mobility and increasing strength over a span of 6-12 weeks.

What is the best exercise for degenerative disc disease?

Everyone is different but exercises should work to improve flexibility and strength. People with DDD should also be cautious when it comes to spinal extension as this can cause further symptoms if nerve symptoms (tingling, numbness, or burning) are present.

Wondering if our physical therapy clinic is the right approach for your problem?

Medical Disclaimer:

All information on this website is intended for instruction and informational purposes only. The authors are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result. Significant injury risk is possible if you do not follow due diligence and seek suitable professional advice about your injury. No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied on this website.