Nonsurgical Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease

Doctors at NYU Langone offer nonsurgical treatment to relieve back or neck pain caused by degenerative disc disease. Pain medication and physical therapy can manage symptoms and help the body adjust to the damaged disc. Together, these treatments can relieve pain and improve function, often long term.

Medication

Degenerative disc disease does not affect everyone in the same way. One person may hardly notice symptoms, whereas another may need medication for serious pain. Doctors at NYU Langone determine the type of medication you need based on the results of diagnostic tests and your description of the type and location of pain.

Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs

When the body is injured, the immune system responds by sending specialized cells to repair damaged tissue. Part of this response is inflammation, which causes pain and swelling in soft tissues in the spine, such as nerves. Treating the inflammation with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may alleviate pain and swelling.

The most common NSAIDs are ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. All are available without a prescription, and your doctor can recommend how best to use them. If the pain is not relieved by over-the-counter medications, doctors may prescribe a more potent anti-inflammatory.

Prescription Pain Relievers

If a herniated disc pinches a nerve, or if bone growths form, narrowing the space in the spinal canal, the pain can be severe. Over-the-counter medications may help relieve pain, but if they don’t, your doctor may recommend a brief course of prescription pain relievers. These medications should only be used for a week, at most. They're intended to help you feel better until a muscle relaxant or anti-inflammatory medication starts to work.

Muscle Relaxants

If degeneration causes a disc to slip out of place and pinch a nerve, the electrical signals that move from the nerve to nearby muscle tissue may be disrupted, leading to painful muscle spasms. Muscle relaxant medications can calm spasms and ease pain, letting you move more easily.

Your doctor may prescribe these medications for a week or two. After that, pain caused by muscle spasms often goes away on its own.

Corticosteroids

If other medications don’t relieve your back or neck pain, your doctor may recommend corticosteroids, which are taken by mouth. Steroids reduce inflammation in the area near the injured disc, taking pressure off an affected nerve and relieving pain. Available by prescription, steroids are typically taken for 7 to 10 days, at which time your doctor reassesses your symptoms before recommending additional treatment.

Weight Loss

Being overweight can cause or exacerbate problems associated with the spine because excess weight, especially in the front of the body, may pull the spine’s vertebrae, joints, and discs out of alignment. If you’re overweight and have degenerative disc disease, the added pull on the spine may lead to nerve damage and additional pain.

Our doctors understand that weight loss is not easy. NYU Langone’s Weight Management Program offers a variety of services that can help you make positive changes.

Physical Therapy

Your doctor may work closely with rehabilitation specialists to help you manage symptoms using specific movements and exercise. Often, physical therapy relieves pain and prevents further damage to the spine. At NYU Langone, physical therapists at Rusk Rehabilitation can recommend a treatment plan based on your daily routine, the location of your pain, and your overall health.

Strengthening the core—the muscles in the back, abdomen, upper thighs, and buttocks—is an important part of therapy for a herniated disc. If these muscles are weak, the spine bears more weight. This added pressure can cause instability or worsen an existing spine problem.

A physical therapist can teach you a series of exercises for strengthening these core muscle groups, which can improve posture, relieve pressure on the nerves affected by a slipped disc, and alleviate pain.

A physical therapist may also recommend complementary techniques designed to improve overall function and make you feel better while you build core muscles. Stretching, massage therapy, and heat and ice may be part of your treatment plan.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a therapeutic technique in which doctors insert very thin needles into various points on the surface of the body. By targeting specific points along “meridians,” which correspond to nerve pathways affected by a particular disc, acupuncture may stimulate healing by increasing blood flow. Acupuncture may also prompt the body to release endorphins, which are natural pain relievers.

Our licensed acupuncturists administer this therapy in a relaxed setting at NYU Langone. Acupuncture needles are left in place for 20 to 40 minutes. For optimal results, doctors usually recommend several sessions.

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