I’m not a doctor, consult your physician before beginning any exercise or nutrition program.
Here is my story of how I overcame degenerative disc disease and the 4 lessons I learned. What worked for me might not work for you, but I’m sharing my story so you know this diagnosis is not a death sentence.
Lesson 1: Functional Diagnosis
When I first got diagnosed with degenerative disc disease I was 21 years old, and the way the doctor described it to me it sounded like my life was over. He said I should avoid running, jumping, lifting weights, or anything that loads my spine.
It turns out “degenerative disc disease” is not a disease, it’s just a fancy term they use when they don’t know the cause of your pain. It’s like saying an old person with wrinkles has degenerative face disease - it’s not helpful at all.
The biggest mistake I made on my journey was listening to doctors with the best education, at the head of their department with tons of accolades and decades of experience, but who only focused on symptoms and not the causes. I tried chiropractic, physical therapy, massage, and yoga, but these treatments provided no long term relief because they never addressed the cause of my pain.
The first lesson from my back pain experience that I want to share with you is that you must complete a functional diagnosis to understand the root cause of your pain, because if you only deal with the symptoms you won’t find relief. If I knew then what I know now, I would have booked a consultation with a McGill Method Master Clinician to get a functional diagnosis for my pain that would describe the cause not just the symptoms.
I now know a primary cause of my pain was the 14 hours per day I was sitting at my desk job and at school that tightened up my hip flexors and stressed my spine.
Lesson 2: Stretch
The second lesson I learned is that stretching the right muscles can directly help back pain. I learned about the couch stretch from YouTube and it took several months to open up my hips, but just 2 minutes per side in the morning and at night provided me with immediate back pain relief.
Stretching can be very helpful for back pain, but all stretches are not equal. At yoga classes, the instructors would have me stretching my lower back, but that often only made my pain worse.
When a person with tight hips bends down, they move with their low back! When a person with a tight thoracic spine reaches up, they move with their low back! This is called compensatory relative flexibility - where you compensate for the lack of hip or thoracic mobility by moving at the low back. Contrary to what you’ll see on instagram, the low back is often the most relatively flexible area. The principle of relative flexibility is why mobilizing the hips and thoracic spine is more important than the lower back.
The couch stretch opened my hips, and hanging from a bar opened up my thoracic spine. Many of my clients have found great relief in their back pain with these two stretches alone.
Lesson 3: Joint Balance
The third lesson I learned from Dr. Vladimir Janda is that sedentary living causes certain muscles to get short and tight while other muscles get long and weak. Certain muscles need to be stretched, while others need to be strengthened. If you go to the gym and tighten up muscles that are already tight, you’ll make your pain worse.
I learned that doing crunches and leg extensions made my pain worse, while hip thrusts and Romanian deadlifts provided me with relief.
Many people have back pain because tight hip flexors prevent their glutes from working, which is called reciprocal inhibition. This problem gets worse once the overactive hamstrings dominate the glutes, something called synergistic dominance.
For a sedentary person, the most important muscles to stretch are on the front of your body, and the most important muscles to strengthen are on the back of your body.
Lesson 4: Posture
The fourth lesson I learned is that improving my daily posture by sitting less but also sitting better prevented my pain. At my 9-5 job I would set a timer every hour to get up and move. I would work at my desk in a half-kneeling position to stretch my hips. When I waited for the train I sat in a deep squat and at home I spent more time on the ground and less time on the couch.
Although I was sitting less, sitting for more than an hour was still uncomfortable because my posture was habitually slouched, which put extra stress on the discs of my spine. By rolling my hips forward (pelvic anteversion) so that my weight rested on my sit bones instead of my tailbone, sitting became pain-free. Unfortunately, most public seats are designed to make you slouch, but if you put a wedge at the back of your seat you can still sit comfortably.
The primary cause of my back pain was poor posture and tight hips and what helped me become pain-free was stretching, strengthening, and improving my posture. The cause of your back pain is unique, which is why it’s critical to complete a functional diagnosis.
The expert back pain doctors I went to didn’t have the expertise or the time to help.They didn’t know the cause of my pain because they never asked about my lifestyle or analyzed my posture or movement.
If you have degenerative disc disease, book a consultation with a McGill Master Clinician to get a functional diagnosis. Purchase The Back Mechanic by Dr. Stuart Mcgill to better understand the cause of back pain, and 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back by Esther Gokhale to understand good posture.
I’ve shared my story with you in the hopes that I save you time on your journey. I know what it’s like to be in pain 24 hours a day and I’m on a mission to help others overcome their chronic pain. If you have any questions, please comment below or send me a message. If you want help on your journey, schedule a fitness consultation at tompfeiffer.com.
Hope this helps! Until next time, Peace! - Tom