Exercise is some of the best medicine for back pain, and it can provide relief for degenerative disc disease. However, the wrong exercise can also exacerbate your condition. Avoid high-impact moves and those that involve heavy lifting at awkward angles.
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Disc Degeneration Exercises to Avoid
The number one determinant for whether or not you should avoid an exercise is pain. If you have degenerative disc disease, exercises to avoid are any exercise that causes pain and discomfort. This isn't a case of "no pain, no gain." Continuing to exercise through back pain can worsen your condition and lead to long-term dysfunction.
Heavy lifting is typically not safe when you have lower back pain. Exercises such as deadlifts put your body in an awkward forward position that, without significant core strength, can cause overstretching and strain in the low back. Add heavy weight on top of that, and you've got a recipe for exacerbated low back pain. These are high on the list of disc degeneration exercises to avoid.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns against lifting heavy objects in and out of the gym. If you're lifting weights, choose exercises that keep the weight close to your body and be sure to lift from your knees. Always brace your core muscles by drawing your navel in toward your spine and tightening your obliques and lower back muscles.
Additionally, NIH recommends avoiding exercises that jolt the back. Your intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers and as they wear down they can't protect the spine as they used to. High-impact activities such as jump training (plyometrics) and high-intensity interval training may be too much for your lower back, especially if you're still healing. It's best to stop doing any vigorous, high-impact activities until your doctor gives you the green light.
Even then, you still need to practice caution. As its name implies, degenerative disc disease is an ongoing condition that generally gets worse with age. Avoiding these potentially unsafe exercises for the long-term can help preserve the integrity of your discs.
Recommended Exercises for Disc Degeneration
There are many more exercises you can — and should — do with a degenerative disc than those you can't do. In fact, as long as you're not experiencing acute pain, you should exercise regularly. According to NIH, inactivity can make back pain worse.
The most important exercises for relief for degenerative disc diseases are core-strengthening exercises. According to the Mayo Clinic, strong back and abdominal muscles work as a sort of corset, or support, for your lower back.
If you work with a physical therapist, they will likely prescribe core exercises for you to do at home. These may include:
- Oblique twists
- Pelvic lifts
- Opposite-arm opposite-leg reaches
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends doing these exercises at least two days per week.
In addition, low-impact cardio exercise can help maintain the health of intervertebral discs, says NIH. Examples of low-impact exercise include walking, swimming, biking and using the elliptical machine. Aim to meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services of at least 150 to 300 minutes of low-impact aerobic exercise each week.
In addition to core-strengthening, be sure to do muscle-strengthening activities for all your other major muscle groups at least two times a week. Warm up properly before each workout and use proper lifting technique, avoiding any move that you feel might be unsafe for your lower back.
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- National Institutes of Health: "Low Back Pain Fact Sheet"
- Mayo Clinic: "Back Pain"
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Getting to the Core of the Matter"
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults"
- MayoClinic.com: Osteoperosis: Choosing the Right Form of Exercise