Degenerative Disc Disease – Neck and Back Pain

Is Degenerative Disc Disease Causing My Neck & Back Pain?

At the age of 42, after an MRI, I was diagnosed with Degenerative Disc Disease. I also had two bulging and one herniated disk. I went home, crawled into bed and cried, convinced that my body was aging beyond repair, and it would be all downhill from there. That was fear. Not fact.

What I now know and want to share with you is that degenerative disc disease may just be a normal part of aging, not a disease at all! “Consider the results of a major 2014 review by Brinjikji et al: signs of degeneration are present in very high percentages of healthy people with no problem at all. ‘Many imaging-based degenerative features are likely part of normal aging and unassociated with pain.*'”

The Bad News    

Yes, your neck or back hurts and your doctor just told you that you have a condition with the word “degenerative” in it. You can’t even bend down to feed the cat in the morning because your back is so stiff and painful. Or maybe your problem isn’t so much having back pain, but your foot is numb. Or you have pain, numbness or tingling in your buttocks, knee or calf. It’s been going on longer than you care to admit and nothing seems to make it better.

The Good News

Remember: that MRI is not the whole story. In fact studies show that there is a low correlation between a scary MRI and low back pain. “Low back pain experts have long understood that you simply cannot reliably diagnose low back pain either with MRI, or with X-ray.

Okay fine, you say, but you still have back pain, which is why you got the MRI in the first place. Here’s where the good news comes in. You can get better. More likely than not, you can return to a completely pain-free life. With the right treatment and a few targeted exercises, you can restore flexibility to your spine and become stronger than you’ve ever been. You will probably need to learn a few postural adaptations, especially at your computer, along the way.

The other good news is that this is a wake-up call while you’re still fairly young. Treatment might include gentle back and hip flexibility exercises using a gentle, healing breath to ease your body and mind. You might learn a few postural tips and appropriate core strengthening exercises. Later your treatment might include yoga back strengthening with other exercises to make your hips and legs stronger. You might find that not only do these exercises make your back feel better, you look better, too. And who doesn’t want that? With a stronger core, you might find you have more energy. (P.S. the core refers not only your belly muscles, but all of the muscles surrounding your pelvis – side hip muscles – glutei medii and minimi, the glutei maximii (your glutes), your pelvic floor and efficient, coordinated use of your breath with movement.) The strengthening usually comes after we’ve got a handle on your pain. (Beware treatments that load you up with weights for strengthening from the get go – I’ve had too many patients come to me after that kind of therapy. Their pain didn’t improve or sometimes it got worse.)

Who Can Help?

Integrated and Holistic Physical Therapy, like Yoga Physical Therapy with Sharon Gary, provides the best treatment because it works with your mind and your body. You and only you will receive one hour of expert one-on-one treatment.

I have rarely worked with anyone whose stress isn’t a contributing if not primary cause of back pain or neck pain. Mental and emotional tension often ends up in a weak area of our bodies. It’s part of the reason we get pain in the low back, the neck, the shoulders, the knees, and even the soles of our feet in plantar fasciitis.  I’ve healed my own back pain. I also have experienced the ongoing stress and exhaustion you may feel from having the back pain itself.

I incorporate a refined and effective skill set, which includes McKenzie’s Techniques, Joint Mobilizations, Neural Glides, Yoga, Feldenkrais, Alexander principles, Strain-counterstrain, Myofascial massage and more. My patients also tell me I’m intuitive and a good listener.

A few tips before I wrap up. Be careful with well-meaning advice from friends or your yoga or dance teachers. Exercises like standing or seated forward bends and intensive hamstring stretching may make the situation worse. I would avoid twisting exercises until you know more about what’s going on. Backward bends, like sphinx and cobra poses help many people but make others worse. It might be best to avoid abdominal crunches or other heavy-duty abdominal exercise es at first. There are many wonderful and effective core strengtheners that involve little to no spinal flexion and won’t exacerbate the problem.

Know that you don’t have to go it alone. A holistic, mind body approach works best. So give us a shout out.


*Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canada,, March 17, 2015, under Articles tab, X-Rays and MRIs Almost Useless for Back Pain.