Despite its name degenerative disk disease (DDD) is not caused by a specific disease. Rather it is osteoarthritis of the spine, which occurs as a natural part of aging in some people.
DDD is diagnosed when one or more of the disks that cushion the vertebrae of your spine change shape, lose their thickness, or break down over time. There may be neck or back pain related to damaged disks. But in many cases, there is no pain at all. You also may have stiffness in your spine. If you smoke, are overweight, or do heavy physical work, you are more likely to develop DDD. And if you don’t exercise, you are also at a higher risk.
A diagnosis of DDD, with or without pain, is not a cause for alarm and rarely requires surgery. Instead, it is a call to action to maintain or improve spinal health with exercise to improve strength and flexibility. Even if you do have pain, expensive scans (MRI or CT) may not be appropriate or necessary.
Most patients respond well to physical therapy, which can help minimize back and neck pain resulting from DDD. Physical therapists (PTs) use movement, hands-on care, and specific exercises to treat people with DDD. Gentle exercises that you can do on your own include walking, yoga, swimming, or low-impact aerobics. These exercises also are beneficial when combined with physical therapy.
If exercise is not tolerable or you have other conditions that limit your mobility, a physical therapist can help. Research has shown that treatments like physical therapy and regular exercise are as effective as surgery for people with DDD in their lower spine.
So if you’ve been diagnosed with DDD, don’t lose hope, try exercise and physical therapy first. While a DDD diagnosis sounds scary, a PT can help you reduce or eliminate your pain. Physical therapy also may help you avoid costly imaging scans, risky prescription opioids, and invasive treatments or surgery.
To find a physical therapist near you, visit Find a PT.
Reviewed by Pradeep Rapalli, PT, MBA, board-certified clinical specialist in geriatric physical therapy and certified expert in exercising aging adults, on behalf of the Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy.