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How Physical Therapy Can Help With Degenerative Disc Disease

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I’ve been dealing with lower back pain for several years.  Then it got to the point where it was impossible for me to do any of the household chores without having to sit down and wait for the spasms to stop. I saw the physician assistant at my primary doctor’s office, and he ordered an MRI to see what was causing my discomfort.

The next time I saw him, he gave me the test results which showed arthritis in my lower back as well as mild degenerative disc disease.  He went on to explain further that it is a common spinal condition that isn’t actually a disease.  It is basically a medical condition in which there are anatomical changes and a loss of function of varying degrees in one or more intervertebral discs of the spine. I then asked him for an explanation on the causes, symptoms and treatments so I’d have a better understanding of what I was dealing with.

Damien went on to explain that there are several factors that can cause degeneration, such as the spinal discs drying out as we age, and tears in the outer portion of the disc due to daily activities or injuries. The symptoms can range from mild to severe to disabling. It can affect the neck, lower back, extend to the arms, hands, radiate to the buttocks and thighs, and worsen when bending, sitting, lifting or twisting. There is usually inflammation present when fluid leaks out from the interior disc space.

The only treatment options he gave me were taking NSAIDs to reduce the inflammation, muscle relaxers, cortisone injections, physical therapy, or the worst-case scenario, have surgery. I opted for physical rehabilitation and taking a muscle relaxer as needed.

When I started therapy, the physical therapist, Kristin, did an initial evaluation first.  We discussed what activities aggravated my back and what made it better. She explained that the exercises she’d be giving me were primarily focused on strengthening the core muscles, mainly in the areas that included the abdominal muscles, the hips, spine and back which would give me better support and significantly lessen the pain. Also, it’s not uncommon to receive more than one type of treatment at the same time. Massage is used to relieve tension in the muscles, along with cold therapy to reduce inflammation, and heat therapy to relax the surrounding muscles and reduce tension and spasms.

There was one thing I did find interesting when Kristin was talking about degenerative discs. Many people who have it will have MRIs, and it’s seen on the imaging, but they have no back pain. The opposite is true as well. Back pain can happen to people who have no significant signs of degeneration.

She stressed to me that it is very important to continue doing the stretches at home daily. Being inactive can only worsen the pain. Gradual improvement will occur as the body gets stronger over time. If new symptoms develop such as acute pain that lasts for more than a few days, my doctor was to be notified right away.

New patients should realize that it will take time and patience to see if the treatment their doctor ordered will work. They shouldn’t get discouraged, and if they get some relief, it’s better than having none at all. Also, even if they feel like giving in, they shouldn’t give up.

Getty image by LSO Photo.

Originally published: May 24, 2020
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