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Exercise for Degenerative Disc Disease: The 11 BEST Exercises to FINALLY Unlock PAIN RELIEF

exercise for degenerative disc disease

Contrary to popular belief, exercise for degenerative disc disease is one of the most efficient ways to reduce pain. The first thing we typically give up when we have pain is movement which is detrimental to our health. Exercise helps to increase the strength and resiliency of the discs between our vertebrae (bones in our spine). It also helps build muscle to support the spine. It is important to know that some exercises are better than others when it comes to degenerative disc disease and it is crucial to know where to start if you want pain relief!

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If you were asked the question: “If your back pain was gone tomorrow, what is the first thing you would do?” what would be your answer? 

I asked this question to a large group of people dealing with degenerative disc disease and got a variety of answers, some of which you might be able to relate to! Here are some of the answers that were given:

  • hiking
  • playing with grandchildren
  • running with dogs
  • deep cleaning the house
  • go for a nice, long walk
  • get through the work day pain-free
  • jump on the trampoline
  • ride horses
  • finally feel free again, live like there is no tomorrow without restrictions
Now think of the one thing you would like to and hear me out.

Learn the possibilities

When looking back at these answers it makes me wonder, where did our medical model go wrong with degenerative disc disease? Most of these people are left thinking they will never be able to do these activities without pain; even simple activities like walking and cleaning the house! 

Degenerative disc disease doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It doesn’t have to force you to live your life from the couch. But many of us don’t realize that it is an option to return to hiking, or walking, or even running! The quote below gives you a hopeful and optimistic perspective to get you thinking of the possibilities.

Despite what the name suggests, degenerative disc disease is not a disease, but a condition in which natural, age-related wear-and-tear on a disc causes pain, instability, and other symptoms. This condition usually does not result in long-term disability, and most cases can be managed using non-surgical treatment methods.

Brian McHugh, MD

Now that we have cleared that up, let’s chat about what we can do about this pain! This is why I want to show you how to exercise for degenerative disc disease. If we totally give up exercise or if we start with the wrong type of exercise, you could easily end up with more pain. BUT if you find the right type of exercise and build the confidence you need, you can thrive

If you would like to know what you should avoid, check out this post first.

Exercise for Degenerative disc disease: the top 11

When looking through these, it is important to remember that not every exercise may work for you and that is totally normal. Each person is different. When completing these, they should not cause more pain above a low level discomfort. If you experience pain >5/10, your body is telling you it isn’t ready for it yet.

Discomfort is normal and expected when starting a new exercise program. Likely with more reps the pain will go away or it will stay the same. If pain increases significantly, stop and choose a new exercise.

Here we go! 

Table of Contents

1. Raised, supported plank with marches

One of the most important things to prioritize is to build your core strength and stamina to be able to better protect your spine. The TRX bodyweight suspension bands are one of our favorite ways to add the right amount of support to exercise. This can avoid flaring up your pain.

You will be pushing through your shoulders and keeping your hips level while you alternate the marches. The higher you bring your legs up, the harder the exercise will be. Start with holding for 15 seconds and progress to 60 seconds as able. 

If you don’t have a set of these awesome straps and you would like to get rid of your degenerative disc disease pain at home, snag a set here

2. Thoracic rotation

No matter where you degenerative disc disease is at the moment, your upper back will likely affect it. For example, if you have cervical degenerative disc disease leading to neck pain, your upper back plays an integral part in the ability to find relief. Same goes with lower back pain. 

This exercise offers an easy way to open up the upper spine. It typically gets stiff when we sit to long, especially in a not-so-great posture. When doing this exercise, you want both sides to feel the same. If you are tighter on one side compared to the other, it likely is contributing to your pain in one way or the other. Complete 8-10 reps on the tighter side.

If both feel similar in range of motion, you can complete 8 reps on each side.

3. Lateral steps bodyweight

In daily life, we don’t find ourselves moving sideways very often. The problem with this is that the muscles that are responsible for lateral movement in the hips become weakened. This can then lead to more back pain.

The idea is to incorporate more lateral movements into your day and give those muscles some love! This is the basic movement you must master if you have back pain related to degenerative disc disease.

If you have a hard time, you can use support of a kitchen counter as well. We want to make sure you aren’t limping while doing this as again, you may have more difficulty on one side than the other. Complete at least 15-20 reps each side or until you begin to feel it in the outsides of your hips. 

4. Lateral banded stepping

Taking the above exercise one step further, grab a resistance band and try the lateral steps again. You want to aim for accumulating at least 20-30 total steps at a time, alternating directions. 

If you don’t have a set of resistance bands, grab some here (they are TOTALLY worth it). 

5. Supine isometric hip flexion

This is a great exercise for degenerative disc disease because often with back pain, your hips can become very tight. 

Instead of stretching these hip flexor muscles, you will gain so much more out of contracting and relaxing the muscles instead! Try this exercise below, 5-8 reps on both sides, holding for at least 5 seconds.

6. Standing isometric hip flexion

Taking the above exercise and increasing the difficulty, grab a resistance band and give this a try. The standing isometric hip flexor exercise is great once you have mastered the above exercise without exacerbating hip or back pain.

Your hips are directly tied into how your spine moves so it is important to make sure your hips are healthy.

Start with a lighter resistance band and progress as you are able to control the movement. Hang onto something for support if needed as balance should not be the limiter for this exercise. Hold for 3-5 seconds for each rep, up to 5-10 reps.

7. Prone back extension

Strengthening your back muscles can be great for your spine, if you can tolerate this position. Only go up as far as you can. Lift up your arms, try to lift your chest off of the ground, and slowly come back down.

Complete up to 5-10 reps, until you feel fatigue in your back muscles. The stronger your muscles are, the more supported your spine will feel! 

8. Supported TRX chair squat

The TRX straps are back and can be extremely helpful when attempting to squat without pain. The best way to go about squatting is to lead with your hips. Keep your weight in your heels and your chest up. 

Complete 10-15 reps or until you feel fatigue in your thighs and hips. To progress in difficulty, complete the chair squat without the TRX straps.

If you want to know more exercises to  do with the TRX straps, check out this article here.

9. Banded wall walks

Posture is another key aspect to relieving pain related to degenerative disc disease. The stronger your shoulders are, the better your upper back and neck will feel! 

Start with a lighter resistance band and walk your hands up as far as is comfortable. Keep pressure on the outsides of the band.

Complete 4-8 reps, up and down the wall, or until you feel shoulder and upper back fatigue. 

10. Side plank

We love this variation for the side plank because it is doable even with degenerative disc disease. Building strong obliques (your side ab muscles) can be extremely important when relieving back pain.

You can use the stairs, a couch, a bed, or another raised surface to complete this side plank. Try to hold for 15-30 seconds at a time. Keep your hips lifted up as high as you can throughout this movement.

11. Balance band pass

Balance is essential to keeping your hips and knees healthy. If you don’t feel confident in your balance, this exercise is for you! 

Use a resistance band or any other household object and pass it back and forth. It is important to master the position of one foot in front of the other but it is crucial to be able to maintain your balance when moving.

Try to hold for at least 30 seconds on each side.

Are you ready to start exercise for degenerative disc disease?

These are the top 11 exercises for degenerative disc disease and are a great place to start to improve leg strength, postural strength, and core strength to help your spine feel more support! 

Start gradually and increase difficulty as you are able. Again, discomfort is normal to experience especially when beginning but significant pain is a warning sign from your body that you’re doing too much. 

You want to aim to workout at least 10-15 minutes per day for at least 3-4 days when beginning, progressing to 5 days a week. 

Beginning exercise is one of the first steps but understanding what degenerative disc disease can be pivotal in your journey to finding pain relief. Degenerative disc disease can mimic the typical signs of osteoarthritis. We have a FREE Ultimate Arthritis Guide will tell you EXACTLY what you need to know about arthritis. 

The more you understand about arthritis, the quicker you will experience pain relief. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain! Your adventure is waiting, it’s time to revive it. 

Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.