Living with Degenerative Disc Disease

posted by Julie November 20, 2017 19 Comments

I have degenerative disc disease.

I do not have a herniated disc. (See a previous post.)

With just one x-ray, an orthopedic surgeon diagnosed me with a lifelong condition. No MRIs, no CT scans. Just one simple x-ray and an exam. Of course, what made it worse, was that this doctor didn’t show any empathy, compassion, or provide helpful ways to manage my pain. What I thought was a small issue that simply needed time and treatment to heal, had become in moments, a condition I was going to learn to live with. I was simply given prescriptions for an anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy, and sent on my way.

So I froze. With glazed eyes and a motionless face, I walked to my car.

While walking in the parking lot, my mind was racing with thoughts: I should get a second opinion. This doctor was so insensitive. How did this happen? Do I need surgery? I have a disease? Am I going to be in pain forever? How can I live this way?  I didn’t make it to the car before the tears started. I was damaged, my body was broken, and my spirit was shattered.

degenerative disc disease lower back pain L5 S1

A degenerative disc and an affected nerve. Note the proper amount of spacing between vertebrae and healthy discs.

My Story

Earlier this year, I saw a chiropractor for a suspected bulging or herniated disc and wrote a blog post about it.  In addition to getting two chiropractic treatments a week, I purchased an inversion table to help take some of the weight off my discs for a few minutes a day, hoping to ease my pain. I later wrote a follow-up post to let my readers know if the inversion table was really helping.

Several months before this, when my pain first started, I simply thought my hip (sacroiliac joint) was just out of whack. After all, I felt like I was relatively young to have any serious back issues; I only just turned 40 this year! I’m also someone who works out 4 days a week and considers myself relatively fit. However, after dealing with on and off tingling in my legs for many months, I decided to see a chiropractor. After a couple of months of treatment, I was better, but not by much. I stopped visiting the chiropractor and hoped that regular use of the inversion table would allow the disc to fully heal and relieve my pain.

About six months later, still with back pain and occasional numbness in my leg, I decided to see an orthopedic surgeon. It was here I had the x-rays done and received my diagnosis of degenerative disc disease (DDD).


The disc that’s causing my pain lies between L5 and S1, which seems to be the most common place in the spine to have problems.

degenerative disc disease lower back pain L5 S1

This is what “normal” spacing looks like between the 5th lumbar vertebrae and the 1st sacral vertebrae. Compare this to the small gap in my x-ray.


The pain and subsequent numbness and tingling in my lower extremities is the result of nerve irritation.  Any single movement can bring me weeks of pain. Any twist, bending, or simple activity involving my lower back can cause a flare up. As a result, I have to be cautious everyday. Anytime I bend to lift something, I have to be careful; and lifting with my legs doesn’t always work because I have very bad knees. However, the worst thing about this problem is the pain; when it’s bad, it’s crippling enough to make the toughest person weep.


Looking Ahead

Learning to live with something that will never go away is difficult to deal with mentally. It’s something I’ve never had to experience. It didn’t help that my physician didn’t give me a complete description of my diagnosis, nor reassurance that I would be ok. It would have been helpful if he had told me this was fairly common, that it’s not a “disease” (but rather a condition), and that all people experience disc degeneration in the spine as they age (although with varying degrees of degeneration, most without pain).

degenerative disc disease lower back pain L5 S1

What a degenerated disc looks like


As we age, water is lost from our spinal discs. The hard outside or “shell” of the disc weakens, which lets the water leak out. This ‘dehydration’ of the disc affects the stability of the spine, which causes pain. In addition, any disruption of normalcy to the spine or injury to the disc itself (including inflammation) will disrupt the nerves and muscles surrounding the affected area. That’s why we have pain, muscle spasms, and/or numbness and tingling.

I was surprised to learn that I had bone spurs on a few vertebrae. The doctor told me that this was a key symptom of DDD. When tissues are damaged or inflamed, sometimes bone spurs show up in nearby bones (since bones are always repairing themselves). Doctors believe these bone spurs grow over time to compensate for the smaller disc space, to help stop excess spinal motion, and to help the spine stabilize itself properly, now with a thinner disc.

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with DDD, know that you won’t be in pain forever. Despite being named “degenerative disc disease”, the “degeneration” does not progress, getting worse over time. In fact, I learned that pain from the thinned disc usually gets better over time because the spine learns to stabilize that affected area. Also, inflammatory proteins in the disc will eventually wear out and stop irritating the nerves. Relief is in sight!

After learning all of this, I look back on the day of my diagnosis and realize that I may have overreacted. However, in my defense, I knew nothing about DDD and didn’t understand my prognosis. I was expecting an easy fix and did not get the answer I was expecting.

degenerative disc disease lower back pain L5 S1

Inversion in action

So, for now, it’s stretching, PT, anti-inflammatory meds when necessary, staying active, bending over smartly, limiting my physical activity, and the occasional session on the inversion table. I did also purchase a new bed which I believe has helped; it’s much firmer and provides better support for my spine.

Learning to live with any health condition is a slow process. You have to learn to adapt your lifestyle around the problem and realize that you and your body do come first! After all, we only get one body.

Have you been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease? How did you handle it? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Travels and Cheers to Your Health!


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Degenerative Disc Disease





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Lewis November 22, 2017 at 8:41 am

I’m 34, and it was extremely hard to hear when diagnosed with DDD. I reacted the same way myself, thought I was permanently damaged, and took days/weeks of research to realize there was nothing permanent about it.
My orthopedic surgeon recommended a microdiscectomy for my L5-S1 bulging/ruptured/herniated/extruded disc (so many seemingly interchangeable terms!). It’s been 9 days since my surgery, and my leg and foot symptoms are at least 90% better. The wound from surgery is the only real source of pain, and it’s steadily decreasing everyday.
I was in the hospital a total of 9 hours. Walked in at 9:00 am, and walked out at 6:00 pm (I was a little frustrated because I felt well enough to walk out by 2:00pm).
Even the morning of surgery, I was still having doubts that I was doing the right thing. By the evening after the procedure, all I felt was relief, and finally knew I’d made the right choice.
By day 6, I was able to walk a mile and a half fairly easily, and can also spend several hours a day on my feet.
Hoping to get back on the inversion table as soon as the surgeon clears me, I suspect it can still be a valuable part of the recovery process for the month or two I have left till being ‘good as new’. And I hope it can help prevent future disc problems too.
I wish you luck, and hope you find the best option for your full recovery from this awful condition. I highly recommend the microdiscectomy if the physical therapy route doesn’t give you enough relief. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Julie November 22, 2017 at 11:52 am

Thank you so much for sharing your story! It’s comforting to know I’m not alone. 🙂 I’m so glad to hear that you’re already SO much better! That’s amazing to hear. Fortunately, I am progressing pretty well, and I do my best to not irritate or aggravate the condition, but that’s not always possible. I’m happy to know that there is a common procedure (and day surgery too!) that can help, if I ever get to that point. I appreciate you leaving your comments! Best of luck on your continued recovery. 🙂

Tam February 8, 2018 at 12:20 am

Hi Julie,

As I started reading your symptoms and story, I first thought, “are you me?!” I’m recently 40 and an MRI showed an L5-S1 central disc protrusion. I’ve been struggling with managing the pain despite going through PT and seeing a physiatrist and even a pelvic specialist. No one has mentioned DDD to me yet, but I’m going to ask about perhaps seeing an orthopedic surgeon. I’ve been dealing with this for about 1 1/2 years now and I’d just like to get to the point where I can sit without pain. Anyway, your blog made me feel less “alone” in terms of goofy back issues and got me thinking I should keep asking questions and keep trying to find answers and relief. I wish you all the best with your recovery. Please continue to update on your progress!

Julie February 8, 2018 at 11:01 am

Seeing an orthopedic doctor is probably a good idea. That’s who I saw, and I only got an x-ray. He was so sure on the diagnosis, no MRI was necessary. Thank you for sharing your story. Living with back pain is a never ending struggle. Every move you make, you have to be careful about your back or you’ll make it worse and take yourself back months of progress. I’ve continued to be more aware of my posture, I try to stand more instead of sitting while at the computer, I use my inversion table, got a more supportive bed, and try to stay fit. If the pain ever gets bad again I’ll likely have to go back to the doctor to see what surgical options are available. Living in pain is no way to live. Good luck on your journey and update me on your progress!! 🙂

Teresa Tanin March 31, 2018 at 10:41 am

I too was shocked—no real help from anyone—not Doc or PT. Told it was just something I had to live with—injury to L5-S1 and degenerate symptoms BUT w/o leg issues is was as if my pain was just not with their time. MRI showed such but MRI’s do not show nerve getting touched while moving as you can not move—-so without viewing nerves being touched Dic was not sympathetic to my constant pain from always a 2 to as much as 10 when my back locks up and I can not move. The “go do your core exercises, take Advil, and live with it” was the response. I am sad from not getting real answers and no recognition of my chronic pain. A friend recommended going to a neurologist. I appreciate your stories and now realize most Doctors just don’t get it.

Julie March 31, 2018 at 7:49 pm

Funny that you got the “do your core exercises and take Advil” speech. Sounds so familiar! No attempts to alleviate the pain or control it. Very frustrating! It’s definitely something I’ve just learned to live with, minimizing bending over and lifting with my back. I hope this will be enough to prevent any kind of surgery. I feel like with back problems, the only real answer is surgery. Thanks for sharing your story with us! Best of luck to you and here’s hoping for pain free days! 🙂

Rich Hunt April 4, 2018 at 9:58 am

Have you considered doing non surgical spinal decompression with a chiropractor? I too had a thin line of a disc at l5 / s1 and now my disc has thickened up and come back to life

Julie April 4, 2018 at 4:23 pm

No, I haven’t looked into non surgical spinal decompression but I will. Thanks for sharing this with us. I’m glad it worked for you!! 🙂

Rich Hunt April 4, 2018 at 10:05 am

They do an updated x Ray every 3 months and it shows the disc height continuing to improve. Most doctors won’t tell you but discs DO regenerate. Look up Dr Bergman on YouTube

Jack July 17, 2018 at 8:37 pm

I think surgery is gonna fix it. C456 ddd and herniation with ridicular symptoms in chest, arms , no grip strength groin problems after 30 mins a physical activity.Best thing is excercise i recommend light weights more reps, then change heavy weights low reps…

Julie July 17, 2018 at 9:07 pm

Ouch, cervical spinal issues are a delicate matter. So sorry to read about your problems, but thanks for sharing with us. I hope surgery can fix your DDD and herniation. Stay strong and best of luck!

Sheldon Marlowe September 24, 2018 at 6:23 pm

Thanks for the article Julie, very much felt like reading my scenario. 39yr old male surfer, hurt my back 10yrs ago in the surf but got through the pain. 2yrs ago i stopped surfing daily and put on about 15kgs but also lost that flexibility and day to day stretching regime. Then 2mths ago started feeling stiff and unable to bend properly to a point where putting my socks on was a struggle. Started feeling like my back was going to go out and a sharp pain in my lower back, saw a chiro and she adjusted me 3 times until i insisted on an xray. Found out yesterday and even i could see from the xray my L5 S1 was virtually not there…..definitely brought me to tears as I’m no stranger to pain but felt like surfing was being taken away from me. Emotionally i feel wrecked because Ive always prided myself on being flexible and fit….pretty daunting knowing where to head from here but i guess i’m thinking yoga and an osteopath? The chiro wants me to have an MRI but reading into it, my scenario sounds like a given and should get on with anti-inflammatories and a regime that will help me feel normal again.

Thanks again! It helps to find sources of peoples experience that is truthful


Julie September 25, 2018 at 1:34 am

Thank you for sharing your story. I can definitely understand your frustration and sadness.

Since being diagnosed over a year ago, I find myself experiencing flare ups from time to time. I’ll overdo it in the garden, weight lifting, doing home improvement, etc and will be in pain for about a week. I have to ALWAYS think about my back, sense how I’m feeling each day, and rest when things are starting to hurt again. I still exercise regularly and make a point to do yoga, stretching, and use the inversion table when I can. Self care is my only treatment. Of course, each person is different and has to do what’s best for himself/herself. If I ever get to a point where my pain is severe and doesn’t subside I will most likely see a spine specialist, but for now, I’m satisfied with how I deal with it.
Best of luck to you! I hope you can get back on that surfboard soon! 🙂

Julie November 1, 2018 at 3:01 pm

Thanks for leaving your story! I am 43 and started experiencing increasing back pain throughout this year. Finally got a back xray and it turns out I have scoliosis (knew that one), kephosis (slight curve) and diffuse DDD. Ugh. Been doing PT but haven’t felt a real difference in pain yet. Reluctant to take anti-inflammatories too much because work in a dialysis unit and see what those NSAIDs do to people’s kidneys — eek. Don’t want to give up my active lifestyle either… hiking is my love so hoping this is possible with it. For me, its going to have to be somehow learning to live with the pain (oy) and hoping to keep hiking as a mainstay. Sigh. I thought I was a bit young for this too and am wondering where I went wrong. Glad to hear that you are managing it somehow and the pain can get better!

Julie November 1, 2018 at 3:41 pm

Thanks for sharing! “Managing” is a good word for it! I have my good days and bad – the bad being days I work in the yard all day or spend too much time standing or bending over. After a couple of easy days, my back gets better and goes back to the standard level of discomfort until I push myself too hard again.

I definitely recommend staying active. I try to do yoga once a week to keep the spine limber, even though I can’t do yoga as well as I once could. I think it’s normal for people to try and figure out what they did wrong or how they developed this, but I would simply imagine that there are certain body types along with genetics that cause this. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to deal with back issues in the early 40’s, but it’s so important to take care of your spine!

Best of luck to you and thanks for reading!

Julie November 1, 2018 at 4:17 pm

Thanks for the reply, Julie! I know, its amazing how what you end up having to deal with medically is so different than what you anticipate! Do you ever have any totally pain-free days or periods? I had also read that eventually hopefully the inflammatory proteins will burn out, perhaps creating less pain? I am really hoping this is true… If you ever need an offline person to email about DDD with, I am available! New to the “journey” so to speak and definitely looking for fellow DDDers to share tips with;)

Julie November 2, 2018 at 7:17 am

Yeah, being physically active and trying to eat healthy, I never would’ve expected back pain. Yes I do have pain free days but they are few. Most days there is always something back there that hurts- usually muscle strain. I got a Sleep Number mattress, ditching my old conventional one, and I keep it on the highest level of firmness. That has helped with the pain. And I try to lie down flat on my stomach (while online or reading) for an hour a day. I only do inversion about once a week but I should do it more. Yes, feel free to email me at anytime! It’s always nice to have someone to talk to about it. 🙂

TAJUDDIN November 2, 2018 at 5:56 am

I have same problem, my doctor suggested for X-ray and report said narrowing of L5-s1 disk with muscle spasm for MRI LSS, guys will you please suggest do any buddy have the same issue, and how did you overcome with that???

Julie November 2, 2018 at 7:23 am

My doctor never said anything about LSS and he didn’t think I needed an MRI. I would definitely recommend getting the tests the doctor wants in order to accurately diagnose you and plot a course of treatment. If there has been anything I’ve learned from this journey, it’s that you don’t mess around with your back. EVERYTHING you do involves it and it’s important to make sure you have all the information, diagnoses, and treatment information you need to get better. Best of luck and keep us posted! 🙂


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