Degenerative disc disease (DDD) affects the intervertebral discs, which are gel-like structures that allow your spine to be flexible and act as shock absorbers. Over time, DDD wears down these discs, resulting in stiffness and pain. Even though DDD is a typical aging condition, physical therapy can help you manage its symptoms and improve your mobility.

This article will help you understand degenerative disk disease. We look at its causes, typical symptoms, and how physical therapy can help you have a more pleasant and functional spine. If you are having symptoms that could indicate this disease, we invite you to contact us at Suarez Physical Therapy in Las Vegas for degenerative disc disease therapy.

Understanding Degenerative Disk Disease

The spine is an integral part of the musculoskeletal system. It provides flexibility and stability and safeguards the spinal cord. The cord is an essential conduit for information transfer between the brain and the body's other organs.

The human spine has five regions, namely:

  • Tentacles — Upper back
  • Lumbar — Lower back
  • Sacrum — Connected vertebrae at the base and
  • Coccyx — Tailbone

Intervertebral discs are vital to the spine's health because they act as shock absorbers and spacers between each vertebra, apart from the fused sacrum and coccyx. Although moveable vertebrae frequently have intervertebral discs between them, the sacrum and coccyx do not have any.

During development, five vertebrae fuse together to form the sacrum at the base of the spine. This fusion produces a strong and secure structure that transfers weight from the upper to the lower body by uniting the spine and pelvis. There is no need for intervertebral discs between the segments of the sacrum because they act as a single bone. The fused structure of the sacrum provides the stability required for the sacrum's primary function, which is weight transmission.

At the tip of the spine is a small, triangular bone called the coccyx, sometimes called the tailbone. Multiple vertebrae fuse to make it. Apart from its primary function of attaching muscles and ligaments, the coccyx is not very mobile. Intervertebral discs are absent from the coccyx as well since it does not need to move in various directions or bear a lot of weight.

There are two main parts to every disc:

  • Annulus fibrosus — This is an outer layer formed by fibrous tissue rings. It supports the vertebrae structurally and prevents excessive movement.
  • Nucleus pulposus — The inner core of the vertebrae absorbs shock and distributes pressure during movement. It is a gel-like substance that is high in water and collagen.

Due to age-related wear and tear, poor mechanics, or heredity, DDD weakens and degenerates the discs over time. The discs' deterioration reduces their capacity to disperse pressure and absorb shock, which starts a domino effect, including:

  • Instability — Weakened discs allow the vertebrae to move slightly out of alignment, which puts excessive strain on the spine's ligaments and joints.
  • Back discomfort — This can be very painful and even radiate down the legs due to disc tears or pressure on nerves (sciatica).
  • Stiffness — Pain and inflammation impair the range of motion and make it difficult to carry out regular tasks.

As a result of this trauma, your spine could develop bone spurs around the vertebrae. Unfortunately, these spurs have the potential to obstruct nerves and restrict the spinal canal, which would increase discomfort.

The leading cause of DDD is aging. Your discs gradually lose water content over time, making them less flexible and more likely to tear. Moreover, daily activities aggravate disc degeneration. Inappropriate lifting techniques, poor posture, and repetitive strain place undue stress on your discs, hastening their deterioration. Additionally, genetics may be involved since some people are born with a tendency toward weaker discs or a higher risk of developing DDD.

Obesity and spinal injuries are additional risk factors. Your discs could sustain trauma that initiates the degenerative process. Being overweight puts stress on your discs and spine, hastening their deterioration. When these elements are involved, several things happen. Your disc starts to lose its capacity to absorb shock and the outer ring tears. A bulge or herniation of the inner gel may push on nerves, resulting in discomfort, numbness, or weakness. Bone spurs can occasionally form around the vertebrae due to your body attempting to heal the damage. The pain could intensify if these spurs restrict the spinal canal and obstruct nerves.

What You Will Experience When You Have Degenerative Disk Disease

The range of symptoms associated with degenerative disc disease varies depending on the location and degree of the damaged discs. The most common symptom of this disease is pain, which can appear in three different ways:

  • A dull ache or pain that could last for a long time can be felt in the lower back (lumbar spine) but could also travel up the neck (cervical spine).
  • A sharp or stabbing pain caused by a bulging or herniated disc pinching a nerve — If it is a lumbar disease, you could feel the impact in your legs.
  • Activity-dependent pain — Activities that strain the spine, like lifting, twisting, bending, or extended standing, usually worsen the pain. On the other hand, some people become more rigid at rest and find relief in movement.

Another common symptom of DDD is stiffness, primarily when waking or after extended sitting. This rigidity could restrict your range of motion, making it difficult to bend over, twist, or swivel your neck comfortably. In certain instances, DDD can also result in tightness and uncontrollably contracting muscles around the afflicted area. Inflammation and pain can set off these spasms, making discomfort worse.

Not everyone experiencing DDD will have all of these symptoms. However, you should see a physician if you experience prolonged pain, stiffness, or muscular spasms.

How Spine Experts Diagnose Degenerative Disk Disease

Patients and spine doctors work together to diagnose degenerative disc disease. Spine doctors locate the root of your discomfort by doing a comprehensive assessment. Examining your medical history at the outset of this procedure allows us to focus on your discomfort's kind, location, and duration. It is important to provide information regarding previous injuries, spinal disorders, and activities that affect your pain. This preliminary evaluation determines a timeframe and possible reasons for your complaints.

The specialist will then perform a physical examination to determine any limitations to your flexibility and evaluate the range of motion in your spine. The specialist could also perform tests on you to assess nerve function, like measuring your reflexes and arm and leg muscle strength. This assists in identifying whether your discomfort is coming from pinched nerves, potentially from a ruptured or bulging disc.

Imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and X-rays could be required to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of DDD. Bone spurs around vertebrae are seen on X-rays, indicating the body's attempt to correct spinal misalignments and disc degeneration. MRIs offer a comprehensive image that makes disc degeneration, herniation, and nerve compression easily visible, enabling a more precise diagnosis.

Other examinations could be required, like a discogram or a CT (computed tomography) scan with myelography. However, this happens rarely. These are typically used in cases where a conclusive diagnosis cannot be made during the initial evaluation.

Treatment of Degenerative Disk Disease

Conservative treatment is the go-to option for treating degenerative disk disease. This option has many benefits over surgery for the majority of patients.

Notably, conservative treatments are significantly less invasive. Physical therapy avoids consequences, including bleeding, infection, and nerve injury, while surgery carries these dangers. As a result, your body recovers more quickly and experiences less stress.

Additionally, conservative treatments prioritize preserving your spine's natural structure. Spinal element manipulation, or fusion, is a common surgical procedure that can change mechanics and cause problems. On the other hand, physical therapy aims to promote stability and long-term health by improving flexibility and strengthening supporting muscles.

Conservative treatments have other advantages beyond relieving pain right away. Physical therapy enhances your ability to manage DDD by addressing the underlying deficiencies and imbalances that contribute to the condition and helping you avoid further issues. This proactive method is different from surgery, which is usually a last resort for severe patients.

Surgery is usually a last resort, although it may be required in some circumstances to stabilize the spine and increase mobility. This is particularly true if you have trouble balancing or with everyday activities due to considerable muscle weakness. If conservative measures cannot control discomfort and have a substantial adverse influence on your quality of life, surgery may also be considered.

But even after surgery, physical therapy is still essential for recovery.

Techniques Physical Therapists Use in Treating Degenerative Disk Disease

Physical therapy uses two strategies to treat degenerative disc disease: functional improvement and pain control. Therapists employ a variety of methods to achieve both goals. Exercises improve stability and relieve disc pressure by strengthening the muscles that support the spine. On the other hand, manual therapy techniques like mobilization and massage, which target muscle tightness and stiffness, ease discomfort.

Beyond treating pain, physical therapy seeks to improve everyday functioning. Exercises that strengthen your core increase your stability and flexibility, making it easier and more confident for you to move. Therapists also offer postural instruction, which gives you the knowledge and skills to keep your spine in proper alignment, lessen strain, and avoid pain flare-ups in the future.

Let us explore some of the various methods you could encounter in physical therapy.

  1. Manual Therapy

A licensed therapist applies methods such as:

  • Massage
  • Mobilization
  • Manipulation

These relieve the tension in the muscles surrounding your spine, directly targeting pain and stiffness. This targeted method can increase your range of motion and ease pain immediately. Furthermore, mild massage techniques help calm the body and increase blood flow, facilitating healing.

  1. Stretching and Flexibility Exercises

Stretching and flexibility exercises reduce tension and stiffness. Tight muscles can aggravate back discomfort by putting tension on the spine. By focusing on these tense muscles, stretching exercises help to increase back and hamstring flexibility. This increased flexibility encourages more fluid movement and lessens stiffness, which results in a notable decrease in discomfort.

Degenerative disk disease could impair your range of motion, making regular tasks more difficult. Stretching exercises will make your spine and joints more flexible, making mobility easier. By increasing your range of motion, you not only lessen stiffness but also help avert further pain attacks.

You can also improve the blood flow to your spine by gently stretching. Increased circulation helps the damaged discs repair themselves and become less inflammatory, which relieves pain and improves general health.

Stretching has long-term benefits in addition to immediate ones. When paired with posture education from a physical therapist, stretching exercises can support you in maintaining appropriate spinal alignment. Lessening the tension on the discs lessens discomfort and helps avoid further injuries. Stretching is a great way to increase flexibility, which is especially beneficial for controlling the disease since it helps prevent injuries and strains of the muscles that can exacerbate the condition.

Stretching ought to be painless and gentle. If you feel uncomfortable, take it easy and ask your physical therapist about adjustments.

  1. Strengthening Exercises

Exercises to strengthen the spine's muscles produce a naturally occurring support structure that lessens the pressure on inflamed discs and absorbs strain. As a result, patients with degenerative disk disease experience significant pain relief.

Good spinal alignment depends on core stability, which includes the lower back and abdomen. Strengthening these core muscles can improve general balance and reduce the chance of additional disc degeneration. On the other hand, bad posture results from weak core muscles, which further strain the discs and spine. These exercises assist in averting further pain episodes by releasing tension in the core muscles and encouraging appropriate spinal alignment. Exercise programs are a thorough and efficient way to manage DDD and support long-term spine health.

Furthermore, strong muscles can help your body absorb trauma and distribute stress more evenly. This can improve your tolerance for day-to-day tasks and lessen discomfort. The advantages go beyond just relieving pain right away. When you strengthen the muscles surrounding your spine, you invest in your long-term health. Stronger muscles can slow down the progression of DDD and help avoid further injuries.

Weightlifting is acceptable, but form is important. A physical therapist will assess and improve your weightlifting technique to maximize safety and advantages. As your muscles become stronger, your personalized program will gradually increase the intensity. However, be comfortable beginning with lighter weights. This approach lowers the chance of harm and lets your body adjust.

  1. Aerobic Exercises

Even though aerobic or cardio exercises might not directly target the discs, regular cardio greatly improves general health and relieves pain.

Cardio increases your general fitness. Frequent aerobic activity strengthens your cardiovascular system and improves blood flow throughout your body and spine. Improved circulation can alleviate pain by promoting healing and lowering inflammation in the damaged discs.

Aerobic exercises also help manage pain. Exercises release endorphins, your body's natural painkillers. Higher fitness levels can also enhance your tolerance for day-to-day tasks, lessening movement-related pain.

You also have to manage your weight. Reducing stress on your spine by maintaining a healthy weight is especially advantageous for people with degenerative disk disease. Aerobic activity is an excellent way to burn calories and support weight management.

Aerobic exercise's low-impact characteristic is a significant benefit for DDD. Low-impact exercises allow you to strengthen the muscles supporting your spine without causing further pain. Low-impact activities that are very helpful for DDD include swimming, walking, elliptical training, cycling, water aerobics, and strolling.

  1. Posture and Body Mechanics Education

In addition to strengthening exercises, stretching, and manual treatment, a physical therapist will teach you about posture and body mechanics. This information encourages long-term improvements in managing your disease and enables you to actively participate in your treatment.

One of the main advantages of posture education is that it lessens the strain on your discs. Physical therapists provide exercises that help you align your spine properly while sitting, standing, walking, and lifting objects. This perfect alignment lessens the strain on your weakened discs by equally distributing your weight throughout your spine.

Posture is just one aspect of correct body mechanics education. You can learn how to lift things, bend when lifting heavy objects, and even sleep positions from physical therapists. You can considerably lower the chance of suffering additional harm by abstaining from behaviors that exacerbate your disease.

Furthermore, strong core muscles are essential for maintaining proper posture. Exercises focusing on your core muscles can help with posture and spinal support, and physical therapists can incorporate them. In addition to helping you maintain good posture, this increased core strength enables you to manage discomfort.

Find a Reputable Las Vegas Physical Therapist Near Me

Even though degenerative disc disease is frequently associated with age, it does not need to significantly lower your quality of life. Physical therapists can design a customized plan to manage your pain, increase your range of motion, and regain your functional abilities. Proactive action is essential. By seeking treatment from a physical therapist, you can restore confidence in your movement and take charge of your spinal health. Call Suarez Physical Therapy at 702-368-6778 to talk to a reputable Las Vegas physical therapist today.