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Understanding the myths and facts about degenerative disc disease

Why a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease doesn’t equal a lifetime of chronic pain

You may be surprised to know that if you’re over 30, you have some level of degenerative disc disease.

However, Rob Gordon, physiotherapist and owner of Lake Country Physiotherapy in Orillia, said this fact isn’t as bad as, or a life sentence of pain, people may have been led to believe. 

Gordon explains that degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a normal part of aging in the spine that begins in our 20’s. In fact, the term DDD itself, he said, gives the wrong impression. “It’s not a disease and we will all experience some degenerative changes in our spine.”

Why DDD is so misunderstood by the average person 

A typical DDD diagnosis can often look like this: Someone gets in an accident, in a car or slip and fall, they go to the doctor and get an x-ray. When it comes back, their doctor says they have DDD in a manner that’s either over-simplified or incorrect regarding what DDD is and what it means moving forward. 

“Unfortunately, some medical professionals are not aware of the harm they can do with a simple comment like, ‘I’ve reviewed your xray and you’ve got the back of an 80-year old',” Gordon said. And if this has ever happened to you and it freaked you out, you’re not alone. As a result, he often treats people who feel defeated and unmotivated about their recovery before it even begins.

Because you can’t “reverse” DDD, when a patient asks their doctor the prognosis, they tell them as such, but leave out that it’s also natural and possible to live a pain free, active life with the right treatment management plan. 

Gordon explains many medical professionals don’t have the time to explain in detail, or sometimes use medical jargon that patients don’t have a frame of reference for. Either way, it’s doing a disservice to people and can make them feel worse. He said while most don’t do this intentionally, being mindful of how information is relayed is crucial. 

“Anything we say, we’re planting seeds, so you have to be careful what seeds you plant in patients because they can be weeds and they can reinforce negative thoughts and behaviours that contribute to pain, or they can be positive seeds that can take root and blossom into beautiful flowers and feelings,” he said.

What you can do to promote good spine health

Gordon said there are many ways you can help yourself once you leave your physiotherapist’s office, where hopefully, you’ve been equipped with an individualized plan that sets you up for success. 

Maintain a healthy weight

“Eating a well-balanced diet and keeping good management of your weight will have a big impact on the spine,” Gordon said. “We know diet factors in there, so somebody who’s carrying around excessive weight is definitely at risk for developing back or knee pain, and a healthy weight is less stress on the joints and spine.”

Staying active and incorporate some resistance training

“Some form of resistance training, like weight training, can have a big impact, it shouldn’t just be well I walk everyday so that’ll be enough, varied activities are the best,” Gordon said.

Resistance training has been scientifically proven to help build bone density, offering a protective benefit to all bones including the vertebrae.

“It helps keep the bone from becoming osteoporotic, it keeps the discs healthier, all the supporting structures become stronger. It helps your joints and muscles adapt too but the long-term benefits are in your bones.”

Maintaining an optimistic mindset

Gordon said the science supports that if you give patients the straight facts in the right way, this alone can start the process of recovery positively. Add to that a tailored individualized plan this will result in people who, over time, are more positive and experiencing less pain. 

“They develop improved confidence in their ability to move, in their ability to heal. The body is an incredible, resilient structure and it has a great capacity for all kinds of healing and recovery as long as we don’t get in its way.”

Lake Country Physiotherapy treats a variety of conditions and their clinic is open. If you’d like to book an appointment or have any questions, contact them at 705-327-7876 or email to sign up for their newsletter.