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Can You Exercise with Degenerative Disc Disease?


Spring is here, and for many of us, that means those activity levels that dwindled off a bit, or a lot, throughout the cold winter months are starting to kick into high gear. The story may not be the same for those who suffer with degenerative disc disease – but let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. Whether your goal is to lose weight for the summer swimsuit season, to spend more time working in the yard or gardening, to reconnect with that long-forgotten New Year’s resolution to make 2019 your year of exercise, or to just challenge your current exercise regimen, exercise and spring just seem to go hand in hand.

So we’re dedicating many of our posts throughout the month of April to exercise. Our exercise series will cover refreshers on many things you may already be aware of (e.g., heart health, weight loss, etc.), but it will also cover many things about exercise that you might not know (e.g. immune system health, genetic benefits, etc.). Today we’ll kick off the series with a focus on exercise in those with degenerative disc disease (DDD).

Exercise and Degenerative Disc Disease: Can You or Can’t You?

The big question when considering exercise if you have disc degeneration is, can you or can’t you? In most cases, our response to our patients is you “likely” can, but it all depends on your condition. One study actually suggests that exercise is highly beneficial in patients with degenerative disc disease as it prevents inflammation of a critical stabilizing back muscle, the multifidus.

What Is the Multifidus?

The multifidus is actually a series of finger-like muscles that line both sides of the spine. The main function of the multifidus muscle is to stabilize and support the spine. Despite the fact that multifidus issues are pretty easy to spot on an MRI, most traditional doctors very rarely pay any attention to this muscle and, as such, you also may not be familiar with the critical multifidus. It is unfortunate that it doesn’t get much attention as inflammation and atrophy (shrinkage) of the multifidus can occur, and if it’s left unaddressed, this can create more problems in the back. Dr. Centeno shares more on the multifidus in his brief video below:

So why is that doctors pay little attention to multifidus issues found on MRI? There really is no surgical solution for treating the multifidus muscle, so most surgeons, in particular, focus on structures they can surgically treat: bones, nerves, discs, and so on. With interventional orthopedics, however, the focus is on nonsurgical solutions for musculoskeletal structures, and this includes the multifidus muscle. So an interventional orthopedic physician will pay attention to and examine this critical muscle and all of the structures it supports.

One study suggests that exercise may be a part of the solution to reducing or preventing multifidus inflammation, even in the presence of disc degeneration. Let’s review…

Multifidus Inflammation Improves with Exercise

The study consisted of both sedentary and active mice with varying degrees of disc degeneration. The multifidus muscles were examined to assess inflammation. In the sedentary group, the disc degeneration was found to disrupt inflammatory-marker gene expression, causing multifidus muscle inflammation.  In the active group, inflammation was either significantly reduced or prevented all together.

While in a human population, we would certainly want to address the disc degeneration as well, the discovery that exercise could potentially relieve multifidus inflammation in DDD is one we want to keep our eye on. Why? If exercise can accomplish what most people with DDD take dangerous nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for, exercise is certainly the more preferable option. And the benefits of exercise don’t stop there…

Exercise and Its Never-Ending Benefits (Even for Those with Degenerative Disc Disease!)

We’ll be covering the many benefits of exercise throughout the month of April, but if you want a sneak peek at some of the amazing perks of exercise ahead of time, we’ve listed a few below:

Even though this initial study used mice, it is still promising, for future studies, to learn that exercise was able to tame inflammation in a critical stabilizing back muscle. If you have degenerative disc disease, exercise may very likely be OK as long as there is not dramatic pain increase. If you aren’t above a 2 or 3, out of 10, pain level, you should be able to gradually increase your exercise level. Work with your interventional orthopedic physician to address your DDD as well, and he or she can also advise you on your exercise goals.

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