Training Options with Degenerative Disc Disease
The one force that binds everything on planet Earth is gravity. It affects all living organisms as well as non-living things. Unfortunately, gravity can have a lasting effect on the human body. With the combination of time and gravity during the aging process, there can be the presence of a condition known as degenerative disc disease. It is a very common condition, with more than 3 million U.S. cases each year. The spinal discs act as shock-absorbers between the bones of the spine, but by nature, they are very soft and compressible. This helps them absorb the impacts that the body endures on a daily basis such as walking, running and even jumping; however, the discs unfortunately are not invincible. Wear-and-tear can occur with time and/or overuse, particularly in the lower back and neck. Although there are treatments that can help halt the progression of the disease and alleviate some of the pain related to the condition, there is no cure for the body to be able to regain the spinal disc material, after it has been compressed and broken down.
Degenerative disc disease affects a very diverse range of people. It can be caused by many different occurrences or a combination of more than one. For many people, the process of this condition begins with a traumatic event such as an automobile accident or a high impact fall. The direct compression of discs can trigger the condition, which will progress unless treatment is administered on a regular basis. Some cases of degenerative disc disease are not manifested by a traumatic event. For some people, the condition can begin simply due to modern birthing techniques or the natural deterioration of the spinal discs due to aging.
As the human body ages, there can be a loss of fluid in the spinal discs which makes them much less flexible and much more compressible. There can also be tiny tears in the outer layer of the discs, which can lead to a disc rupturing or breaking into fragments. These changes in the quality of the spinal discs are the beginning stages of degenerative disc disease. In addition to natural causes of this condition, lifestyle habits such as smoking cigarettes can affect the fluid in spinal discs, thus increasing the rate at which they can lose flexibility. Also, people who perform very heavy lifting, either for work or for sports and fitness, can lose spinal disc size and flexibility, when the spine is compressed on a daily basis. Many individuals develop degenerative disc disease because of a combination of these various contributing factors.
Along with the thinning of the spinal discs, other complications can occur as well in the onset of degenerative disc disease. One of the most common conditions is the extremely painful nerve issue known as sciatica. The sciatic nerve can become pinched or inflamed due to degenerative disc disease. This pressure can cause a radiating pain from the lower back down the entire leg. Sciatica can make ordinary daily tasks a challenge. Simply driving or sleeping comfortably in bed can be nearly impossible, when someone feels the painful effects of sciatica.
The treatments for degenerative disc disease mainly treat the symptoms of the condition. Ice and heat help to alleviate immediate pain, while non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help as well when pain becomes unbearable. Preventative-focused treatment is important for long-term adaptation to the condition. Physical therapy, particularly stretching and core-strengthening exercises, is very effective, along with proper alignment of the spine via chiropractic care. Each of these methods does contribute to helping an individual living with degenerative disc disease to regain more of their quality of life that they possessed before the onset of the condition.
One of the biggest adjustments when a person is diagnosed with degenerative disc disease is finding the right exercise routine that is a challenge but also safe for his or her spine. Any exercise that puts excessive pressure on the neck and/or lower back area has to be replaced by a much safer substitute. For example, heavy barbell squats, deadlifts and power cleans all place a tremendous amount of pressure on the lower back. High repetition movements that do not involve much strain on the spinal column are better options for those same muscle groups. In lieu of squats and deadlifts, various versions of dumbbell lunges are excellent for working out the muscles of the legs to exhaustion.
High repetitions, with a lighter weight, are the key to staying fit with degenerative disc disease. The body cannot bear any heavy weight on the spine or the discs will continue to wear away until the bones of the vertebrae actually fuse together. It is crucial that all standing exercises are performed with a lighter weight to avoid any further progression of spinal disc deterioration. Lunges are a perfect substitute for squats, and the diversity of angles that are possible with the movement make it an excellent choice for a high repetition workout.
Suspension training such as TRX is also an effective way to push the body to its limits, with virtually no pressure on the lower back or neck. Because suspension training utilizes the body’s own weight as resistance, it is a perfect addition to the workout routine of someone who has degenerative disc disease. For example, exercises such as pistol squats, where one leg is cocked up in the air while the other leg squats with the body repetitively, add a new dimension to working out legs with no spinal compression.
High-impact exercises such as plyometric box jumps will only continue to worsen degenerative disc disease, but there certainly are other options. For an explosive leg workout, a shallow swimming pool (3-5 feet) provides an impact-free environment of resistance where jumps are cushioned by the buoyancy of the water. Swimming and, in general, any water-based workouts are great methods to stay active and in-shape despite the limitations of degenerative disc disease.
Many runners develop degenerative disc disease over time, due to the repetitive impact of striking the ground with the heels. The spinal discs absorb much of this impact and start to wear thin, if alternative techniques are not put into practice. Most runners strike the ground with the heels first. Someone with degenerative disc disease may want to try a different approach. Try “midfoot running” (striking with the foot flat) and, even better, striking with the ball of the foot will absorb more of the impact preventing the spinal column from bearing the brunt of the repetitive striking.
It has been stated that the key to success is the ability to adapt. Degenerative disc disease is a challenge. It is a condition that changes the daily routine of a person’s life; however, rather than being imprisoned by the chains of its limitations, it is an opportunity to evolve and grow from a whole new perspective on fitness and health. Degenerative disc disease will make a person much more aware of the spine and of how much the rest of the body is affected when there is an issue with the vertebrae of the spinal column. With this awareness, an individual can make the necessary adjustments in his or her lifestyle and fitness routine to reinvent workout programs and accomplish new goals, with a new self-efficacy for long-term health, happiness and success.