Weightlifting: How To Spot And Treat Degenerative Disc Disease

Heavy weightlifting can be one of the most taxing sports for the human body. Bearing extra weight places unique strain on soft tissues in the joints and between the vertebrae in the spine. Even though many injuries can be avoided by using proper form during lifts, as a weight lifter you should be aware of the possibility of developing degenerative disc disease, what can be done to prevent it, and how to treat and recognize it if you develop it. 

Each of your vertebrae is protected and separated from the others by a fluid filled section known as a disc. As you age, these discs, which are made up mostly of water, begin to lose their moisture. When someone has degenerative disc disease, it means that their discs are shrinking more quickly than normal, usually due to extra weight, strain, genetics, or higher-than-normal activity without proper nutrition.


First, the best method is prevention, especially if you have a history of disc degeneration in your family. As a weightlifter, try to:

  • eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Weightlifters often eat plenty of protein in order to support the growth of new muscle mass, but fruits and vegetables provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs in order to heal itself after it has been put through significant stress. Animal products can increase inflammation, which may aggravate or accelerate the condition. Talk to a nutritionist about including more plant-based protein in the diet.
  • stay at a constant weight. Excessive weight gain adds more stress to the soft tissues in your back, and can compress the vertebrae even more. If you are a competitive athlete, try to stay lean, allowing most of your weight to be from muscle, and not from excess body fat. Try to stay within a certain weight class throughout your lifting career. 
  • rest in between workouts. Training is important, but weight training any muscle group requires effort from the back. If possible, complete arm workouts while sitting down, in order to reduce stress on the back. When training the legs, allow the body to recover fully in between sessions. Use cold packs on the back in order reduce any inflammation.


If you have any of the following symptoms, you should talk to a physical therapist for a diagnosis, in order to prevent or slow the degeneration of discs in the back:

  • lower back pain. It's especially important to notice the location of the pain, because pain from degenerative disc disease usually travels down the back, and registers in the buttocks and hips as well. 
  • pain that intensifies as you hold a certain position. If you notice that you need to change your position from sitting to standing to lying down frequently to find pain relief, it's a sign that your discs are not in the greatest shape. 
  • inability to bend, twist, or move quickly without experiencing some sort of spinal aggravation. The discs in back cushion your movement and allow for more spinal flexibility. If they are thin and drying out, you'll experience more friction and resistance through the back. 


Your physical therapist can help you to slow progression with specific treatment options. Your daily recovery habits can also help. Once you have been diagnosed, you may need to put heavy lifting on the back burner until your care provider makes a full assessment of your injuries. In order to prevent the acceleration of the disease:

  • do not get massages in the injured or damaged area, unless they are given by your physical therapist. Massage increases blood flow to an area, which can actually make some injuries worse. Talk to your physical therapist before getting any type of alternative treatment. 
  • refrain from drinking alcohol. Alcohol impairs your body's natural healing capabilities.
  • exercise properly. Your physical therapist may provide you with stretches and strengthening exercises. These should be done as often as recommended, but intense cardio and resistance training should be avoided until further notice. 
  • do not apply hot compresses, unless directed by your care provider. These usually will increase inflammation around the discs in the back, making them more difficult to treat. 

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