Degenerative disc disease treatment options you might want to try

By Michael Perry, M.D.

If you have been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, you are likely considering your treatment options for pain relief. There are many options available for degenerative disc disease treatment, ranging from nonsurgical to surgical. You should take the time to research each option so you can be an active participant in the conversation with your doctor about which type of degenerative disc disease treatment is right for you.

Degenerative disc disease treatment can vary widely based on your individual needs. The purpose of conservative treatment is to make you feel comfortable as quickly as possible, prevent further degeneration and help you resume daily activities in a timely manner. When recommending a treatment plan, your doctor will typically take into account several factors, such as your age, overall health and degree to which the symptoms limit your daily activities.

Conservative options for degenerative disc disease treatment

Your doctor will most likely begin your degenerative disc disease treatment with a series of conservative therapies, such as a combination of one of more of the following options:

  • An initial period of rest. While degenerative disc disease usually progresses gradually as part of the natural aging process, its effects can be accelerated by spinal trauma. Immediately after a back injury, bed rest can help a patient feel better by reducing pressure on the spine as well as the core muscles that support it.

Many patients are able to find comfort by lying face-up on a firm mattress with a pillow placed beneath their knees. However, bed rest should be limited to one to three days at most. If you remain in bed any longer, your back muscles can begin to weaken due to inactivity, which can cause your symptoms to worsen. Therefore, even if you are still experiencing some discomfort, a gradual return to regular activities is advised. In most cases of sudden back pain, the sooner you start moving again, the sooner your symptoms will improve.

  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist can educate you on ways to reduce discomfort while remaining as active as possible. The goal of physical therapy as a degenerative disc disease treatment is twofold: first, to reduce stress on the spine to provide short-term relief, and second, to strengthen the core muscles that support the spine to help prevent further degeneration over the long run.

Specifically, physical therapy for degenerative disc disease may focus on relaxing the neck and back muscles to reduce stiffness, tension and spasms, as well as increasing the flexibility and strength of the body’s core muscles so that the neck and back are properly supported. For many patients, a regimen that alternates short periods of rest with brief sessions of targeted exercise can be very effective. A degenerative disc disease treatment plan might also incorporate massage, pool therapy, posture training, applications of heat and ice, electric stimulation or bracing.

  • Medication. When taken as prescribed by a physician, over-the-counter and prescription medications can be very effective for controlling pain and reducing inflammation. For instance, painkillers like aspirin and acetaminophen can help you feel better by addressing pain at the point of injury. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, can help relieve discomfort by inhibiting the inflammatory response around nerves.
    If you are experiencing severe pain, your physician might prescribe a narcotic pain reliever, such as codeine or morphine, which can provide relief by acting as a numbing anesthetic for the central nervous system. Some patients also find muscle relaxants to be helpful for reducing severe spasms.
  • Exercise. Even though neck or back pain associated with degenerative disc disease can make you dread the thought of working out, it is important to note that exercise is vital to both recovery and the maintenance of a healthy spine. A physician-approved exercise program can help strengthen the core muscles that support the spine, as well as the muscles in abdominal region, arms and legs, which can reduce strain on the back.

What’s more, proper stretching can alleviate muscle spasms, while weight-bearing exercises can help prevent a loss of bone mass and thus reduce your risk of compression fractures. Finally, during aerobic exercise, the body releases natural, highly effective pain relievers called endorphins that promote an overall sense of well-being. In sum, exercise can be an important component of your long-term health management plan.

Alternative treatment for degenerative disc disease

To address the pain and other symptoms of degenerative disc disease, some patients utilize alternative treatments. As the name implies, these treatments are alternatives to medication, physical therapy and surgery – the conventional “Western” approaches to medicine. Alternative degenerative disc disease treatment options include:

  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture is the art of inserting tiny needles into the body at precise locations with the goal of freeing the body’s energy force (Chi). Practitioners believe that when the Chi is inhibited, a patient can develop certain physical ailments, including back pain. While research is ongoing and there is still much to be learned about the practice of acupuncture, some degenerative disc patients have tried it for symptom relief and achieved varying degrees of success.

While certain studies suggest that acupuncture can potentially relieve lower back pain, it’s important to note that these findings relate to the immediate relief of chronic symptoms for a short period of time. In other words, as a degenerative disc disease treatment, acupuncture must be practiced regularly to be effective. For the best possible results, acupuncture can be used in conjunction with other forms of conservative treatment, such as massage therapy.

  • Chiropractic manipulation. The goal of chiropractic care for degenerative disc disease treatment is to improve the function of the spinal joints by enhancing motion, reducing compression and achieving proper alignment. To treat neck or back pain, a chiropractor may use one or more forms of spinal manipulation or adjustment, such as specific manual manipulation, the flexion-distraction technique, instrument-assisted manipulation, trigger point therapy and therapeutic massage.
    In addition to directly treating degenerative disc disease symptoms, a chiropractor can educate you on nutrition, stress management and lifestyle goals, all of which can contribute to good spine health.
  • Herbal remedies. Herbal medicine is based on the use of plants or plant extracts that can be eaten or applied to the skin to treat illness. One example of an herbal remedy is capsaicin, a natural substance that is found in cayenne peppers and sometimes used for treating a variety ailments, including neck and back pain.

Some patients find varying degrees of relief by applying capsaicin topically or by consuming cayenne peppers and other foods that contain capsaicin. One note of caution: Even though herbal remedies are considered to be natural, they can sometimes cause side effects and interfere with prescription medications. Therefore, you should always discuss herbal remedies with your physician prior to using them.

Surgical treatment for degenerative disc disease

If severe neck or back pain persists after several weeks or months of conservative degenerative disc disease treatment, you may be advised to consider surgical intervention. In the past, a patient in this situation had one main option: a traditional open spine procedure. Therefore, in deciding whether or not to proceed with this type of highly invasive surgery, a patient had to consider a number of complex and personal factors, such as the prospects of a large incision, a lengthy recovery and rehabilitation, the risk of surgical complications and extensive scarring. As a result, many patients decided to forego surgery, even if they were experiencing chronic, debilitating pain that interfered with daily activities.

The board-certified surgeons+ at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive, outpatient spine surgery to treat spine conditions and help patients find the relief they need. Our minimally invasive degenerative disc disease treatment procedures offer many advantages over traditional open back surgery, including smaller incisions, shorter average recovery time, lower risk of surgical complications and minimal scarring.^

If neck or back pain is affecting your quality of life, call today to schedule an initial consultation at one of our surgery centers or to receive a no-cost MRI review* to find out if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive spine surgery.