Surprising truths about degenerative disc disease

By Dan Skulavik - Contributing columnist

Degenerative disc disease (DDD), despite the name, is not a disease but a deterioration of the discs of the spine. It occurs over a period of time, resulting in neck or back pain and other musculoskeletal and neurological symptoms. It is common in adults, and can start as early as someone’s 30th birthday.

The two most common forms of degenerative disc disease affect the cervical region (the neck) and the lumbar area, which affect the lower back and is called lumbar degenerative disc disease. The cervical and lumbar regions of the spine are susceptible to damage due to increased movement capabilities. Constant motion over time results in the wear and tear of the discs.

There are many different signs and symptoms, with most patients reporting one or more of the following symptoms.

• Pain triggered by an activity

• Pain flaring up periodically and then settles to a low-grade pain/discomfort

• Sitting or standing for long periods of time worsen the pain

• Activities such as walking may alleviate the pain

• Relief upon changing body position

• Muscle spasms

• Tingling sensations in the extremities

Any activity that triggers pain in the neck or lower back should be ceased immediately. If there is no relief with rest, consult with a physical therapist. Early intervention could save you from further damage to the disc, muscles and ligaments.

Physical therapy helps treat the underlying factors such as the instability of the intervertebral joints and the associated inflammation. Your physician may recommend prescription medication to provide relief. Once the pain is reduced, specific exercises and specialized physical therapy techniques are utilized to achieve lasting relief. Treatment falls into one of the following three categories:


• Pain control with acetaminophen, prescription medications, narcotics, etc.

• Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID, steroid injection etc.)

Surgical (if required)

• Fusion of the discs

• Replacement of the damaged disc with an artificial disc

Conservative (Physical therapy)

• Exercise: Progressive controlled exercises under supervision. These include stretching, strengthening and low-impact aerobics.

• Lifestyle modification: Improved posture and movement patterns reduce stress on the spine. Ergonomically designed chairs can also relieve pressure on the spine.

• Self-care including weight management, treatment of depression, etc.

Here are some preventative tips which can help in delaying the onset or minimizing the symptoms of DDD. Poor posture, especially in a sitting position, can cause bone and joint issues over time. If your job is sedentary it is important to:

• Perform stretching exercises at regular intervals.

• Adjust the height of your desk chair and computer to minimize strain on your neck and lower back. (Come to our office for an evaluation and we will identify the most appropriate height for you).

• Invest in footwear to reduce stress on the lower back

Call our office without delay if you are at risk of developing DDD. If you, or someone you know, has been diagnosed with DDD, a physical therapy program, combined with traditional medicine, is critical for recovery. Our physical therapy interventions may include strengthening, postural retraining, ergonomic intervention, and the use of modalities such as electrical stimulation for muscle reeducation.

Physical therapy will improve blood circulation to the affected region and reduce pain by facilitating the release of endorphin (pain relief chemicals naturally produced by the body). The long-term goal is to reestablish range of motion over time and assist in recovery. If you have any questions please feel free to reach out to us to learn more about what physical therapy can do for you.

By Dan Skulavik

Contributing columnist

Dr. Dan Skulavik is the physical therapist at Advanced Physical Therapy in the Food Lion shopping center.

Dr. Dan Skulavik is the physical therapist at Advanced Physical Therapy in the Food Lion shopping center.