Degenerative disc disease is a term used to describe the natural breakdown of the spongy discs between each vertebra of the spine. It is not actually a disease but an unavoidable result of the body ageing. Degenerative disc disease primarily affects the lower back and neck as these are the most mobile areas of the spine. While degenerative disc disease happens to everyone—to some extent—as they age, there are lifestyle factors that also contribute to the severity of the condition. Smoking, heavy physical labor and obesity can contribute to the early onset of degenerative disc disease and/or make the condition worse. Fortunately, activities such as yoga can be an effective way to manage and even help prevent the onset of degenerative disc disease.
Degenerative Disc Disease and Back Pain
As the discs of the spine lose fluid and ‘dry out,’ they become less flexible and more susceptible to tearing. The vertebral discs become flatter and, as a result, the space between each vertebra decreases. These discs act as shock absorbers for the spine. Less cushioning for the vertebrae can result in compression of spinal nerves. Sometimes the spine will grow ‘bone spurs’ to add support and stability to the spine. This can result in more compression around the spinal cord. All of this pressure so close to the central nervous system means that back pain is quite common in people with degenerative disc disease.
Degenerative Disc Disease and Mobility
Degenerative disc disease affects the spine’s ability to move—extend, flex and twist. The loss of space between the vertebrae means the back is now less flexible. Movement can also add pressure to the already compressed nerves around the spine. This is why movement sometimes increases pain in the body. That being said, movement can also help to relieve tension in the back and build the core strength needed to alleviate some of the pressure between the vertebrae. The right type of movement can actually help reduce the back pain associated with degenerative disc disease. Yoga is one such form of movement that, when done correctly, can reduce the back pain that comes along with degenerative disc disease.
Degenerative Disc Disease and Yoga
Yoga offers numerous ways to mindfully move the spine when dealing with degenerative disc disease. Yoga is considered a low-impact or no-impact activity so the vertebral discs do not need to act as shock absorbers. There are also a lot of options when it comes to adjusting each yoga pose to suit your body. The props used in yoga—blocks, straps, bolsters, blankets—can add additional support and/or alignment help. With so many different styles of yoga to choose from, it is important to know what to do—and what to avoid—when seeking out a practice. Here are some of the most common things to keep an eye out for when moving with degenerative disc disease:
Do: Find a teacher who knows about degenerative disc disease
Talk to the teacher before class and let them know what your back can and can’t do. Ask for variations on poses beforehand or during class, if something doesn’t feel good or hurts. Be sure to mention whether or not you like hands-on adjustments in your practice to avoid aggravating your back further.
Avoid: Classes that are fast-paced and full of sun salutations or ‘flows’
While moving your body is important in order to stay healthy, moving the body too quickly can result in more back pain. Avoid classes where you could be at risk of moving too quickly and hurting your back. Instead, opt for more steadily paced classes that allow you to move in and out of each pose mindfully.
Do: Take rest if you need it
Take the time you need to rest during your yoga practice. This is especially important if your back pain is really present in your body when you are in class. Some poses may be more challenging to hold with degenerative disc disease. Rest allows you to check in with your spine and note if anything felt especially good or especially uncomfortable or painful. Checking in allows you to do what’s best for your back.
Avoid: Deep twists, backbends and forward folds
The lack of space between your vertebrae means your spine won’t be able to twist, extend or flex as deeply. Doing so may result in making your condition worse. Instead of trying to push your spine to your limits, work on engaging your core muscles and stabilising your spine instead. If anything feels painful, don’t do it. Ask the teacher for other options instead.
Do: Build up core strength
Yoga offers a lot of ways to engage and strengthen the core muscles. Strong core muscles mean your spine has more support. This may help to alleviate pressure on the nerves being compressed by your degenerative disc disease. A strong core also helps to stabilise your back while moving in yoga and in your daily life so your condition does not worsen for movement-related reasons.
There is no avoiding that, as the body ages, it starts to break down. Sometimes the result of this breakdown is degenerative disc disease. While healthy lifestyle choices can help slow the onset of ageing, when degenerative disc disease is already present, activities such as yoga can be extremely beneficial. Taking the time to care for your spine now will allow your to live more comfortably in the future. So take some time to downward dog regularly. Your back will thank you.
Blahd, Jr, William H., MD, and Robert B. Keller, MD. “Degenerative Disc Disease-Topic Overview.” WebMD. June 4, 2014. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://www.webmd.com/back-pain/tc/degenerative-disc-disease-topic-overview.