Each of the vertebrae that make up your spine is protected by soft cushions called discs. These discs work as shock absorbers and prevent your bones from grinding against each other. While some spinal discs can remain strong your entire life, others can wear out or break down. This is known as degenerative disc disease (DDD). The condition most frequently occurs in older adults but it can be found in younger people as well.
If you are diagnosed with DDD, your doctor will walk you through a treatment plan and ideal road to recovery. They will likely go over a list of activities that they want you to avoid to prevent your back pain from worsening. Here are a few things you should not do with DDD and some things you can do in order to ease your pain.
DDD occurs when one or more of your spinal discs break or start to wear out. Worn-out spinal discs can cause your vertebrae to rub together and lead to other back problems that can become incredibly painful. Even if your DDD itself isn’t physically limiting, your symptoms could get worse over time because of your exposed and vulnerable vertebrae.
The most common symptom of DDD is neck pain if the damaged disc is in your cervical region and lower back pain if the damaged disc is in your lumbar region. This pain could come and go over long periods of time and with different levels of severity. You could feel a dull ache throughout the day or shooting pains that occur unexpectedly. Additionally, you might notice a tingling or numbness that radiates down your arms if you have neck pain or legs if you have lower back pain.
At best, pain from DDD can cause unexpected discomfort throughout the day. However, as this condition progresses, it can disrupt your day-to-day life and limit your ability to move, work, and enjoy various hobbies and activities comfortably. Your doctor’s goal is to prevent your pain from worsening to the point where it is unbearable and affecting your range of motion. This is why they will recommend specific activities to avoid.
Most people associate back pain with activities like heavy lifting, but there are actually a wide variety of causes of DDD. Here are some of the most common triggers of DDD pain that can worsen your discomfort while putting even more pressure on your spinal discs.
High-impact sports require a lot of sudden movements and often involve physical impact on the body. People often think about sports like football and basketball when talking about high-impact activities because they involve pushing your body against others and falling to the ground. However, activities like running can also be considered high-impact because your feet are pounding into the ground.
Other high-impact sports include tennis, volleyball, baseball, and soccer. If you are unsure whether one of your favorite sports is considered high-impact, talk to your doctor. They can tell you whether your hobby can worsen your DDD and put you at risk for greater injury.
These activities are harmful because they send more shocks through the spine and cause your spinal discs to work harder. If one or more of your discs aren’t working as they should, these shocks won’t get absorbed which could lead to further damage and pain.
When you have a healthy spine, you can comfortably twist your body to the right and the left. This allows you to reach for various items without having to move your feet to face a new direction. However, if you live with DDD, try to avoid activities that cause you to twist your body suddenly or in extreme ways.
For example, back pain is the most common injury associated with golf because of the dramatic twisting motion that comes with a swing. Yoga is another common activity where the body twists in different ways in order to reach various positions.
The lower back is not designed to twist more than 15 to 20 degrees. Avoiding activities with significant twisting can reduce your discomfort and prevent more serious injuries from occurring.
You don’t have to participate in intense sports and activities to worsen your DDD. Poor posture can also contribute to your pain levels and put extra pressure on your spinal discs. Your spine was designed to curve in a certain way. This natural curvature reduces pressure on your spinal discs and makes you feel comfortable. When you have poor posture, your spine has an unnatural curve, which means the vertebrae put pressure on your discs where there shouldn’t be.
It takes time and practice to improve your posture – no one expects you to stop slouching overnight. Instead, check your posture throughout the day and try to stand or sit up straight for a few minutes at a time. You can also invest in a chair at work that supports your back and encourages good posture.
Weight lifting isn’t usually considered a high-impact activity and it can actually help your DDD if you have strong muscles in your back. However, weight lifting is also considered risky for people with DDD because poor form and lifting techniques can further harm your spine.
If you lift heavy objects for work, talk to your manager about your DDD. Make sure you have to appropriate support equipment or move to light duty until your DDD is treated. If you lift weights to improve your health and muscle mass, consider talking with a personal trainer. They can check your form to make sure you are lifting safely and can offer recommendations on weight loads. You might benefit from working with lighter weights while you treat your DDD, that way you maintain a good workout habit without hurting yourself. I personally use light weights and high repetition.
Activities like slouching, sitting at your desk, long airline flights or resting on your couch for too long can worsen your DDD and leave you with unexpected levels of pain. Your spine isn’t curving as it should, which puts pressure on your spinal discs.
If you have ever stood up from your desk and felt sore, you are likely sitting for too long and putting your spine in an uncomfortable position. Try to build more breaks into your day where you can move around, stretch, and give your spine a break. This can be as simple as walking around your neighborhood during your lunch break and practicing a few minutes of DDD physical therapy exercises at the top of each hour.
Walking is actually good for your spine and you can give your eyes a break from your computer and phone screens as well during this time.
Along with evaluating your activities and hobbies, your doctor might also encourage you to review various lifestyle factors that could affect your DDD. Making these changes could reduce your back pain while improving other mental and physical aspects of your health.
One lifestyle factor to consider if you live with back pain is your diet. Some foods can worsen inflammation and leave you in more pain than you can handle. Your doctor might recommend reducing your sugar intake (especially soda) and cutting back on refined carbohydrates (like white bread). This doesn’t mean you need to eliminate certain foods entirely, but rather that you should cut back a little and see how the change affects your body.
Additionally, your doctor might also ask you to change your diet if they would like you to lose weight. Excess weight puts pressure on the spine and can worsen symptoms of DDD. Taking up healthy habits like walking each day and tracking your portions could help you lose weight and reduce your back pain.
Sleep is an important part of the healing and recovery process, whether you are dealing with the flu or a serious spinal condition. When you don’t sleep as long as you should or experience poor sleep, you grow your sleep debt – the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount you get.
Your mattress may be a source of poor sleep and back pain, which means it could make your DDD worse. If you wake up in pain or your mattress is more than a decade old, it is time to replace it. Look for mattresses that cushion and support your spine so you can sleep peacefully at night and heal.
Ergonomics is the study of humans and how they interact with their working conditions. The field of ergonomics works to reduce the negative impact of the modern workplace on the human body. Taking breaks from sitting for several hours is an ergonomic practice. Here are a few adjustments you can make for your DDD.
Evaluate your current workstation and consider whether it hurts or helps your spinal health. Small adjustments, like investing in a proper desk chair and changing your monitor height, can have a big impact on your pain levels.
Additionally, your position while driving can also have a negative impact on your spine. Make sure you are sitting up straight when you drive and practice safe handling of the steering wheel. You can also invest in support padding for your seat to help you maintain good posture while taking pressure off of your spine.
You don’t have to become an expert on DDD and police your daily activities to make sure they are safe. Instead, you can work with your doctor, physical therapist, and spine specialist to learn what you can do and what you should avoid. For every no, your medical team might be able to provide a yes for something else. For example, if running is your favorite cardio exercise, your doctors might recommend swimming or cycling as alternatives.
It is better to talk to your doctor about any concerns you have instead of moving forward with potentially harmful activities. Furthermore, every patient is different. Your medical team will consider your physical health and the state of your DDD before providing individualized recommendations for managing this condition.
Patients from all walks of life manage their DDD every day. They take steps to reduce their pain levels, protect their mobility, and improve their spinal health through a variety of treatments. If you live with back pain, talk to a doctor to learn what may be possible to treat your condition. You might be able to continue some of your favorite hobbies – like weight lifting – as long as you are careful!
Plus, even seemingly small lifestyle changes can make a big difference to your health and well-being. The improvements you make today could have a noticeable impact on your mental and spinal health.
Start by surrounding yourself with a team of experts who are able to help you. Request a consultation with Dr. Todd Lanman, leading spinal neurosurgeon and founder of the Advanced Disc Replacement Spinal Restoration Center, today.
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