How to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease in the Neck, According to Physical Therapists

Learn about degenerative disc disease in the neck and get effective treatment options recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 4, 2024

How to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease in the Neck, According to Physical Therapists

Learn about degenerative disc disease in the neck and get effective treatment options recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 4, 2024

How to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease in the Neck, According to Physical Therapists

Learn about degenerative disc disease in the neck and get effective treatment options recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 4, 2024

How to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease in the Neck, According to Physical Therapists

Learn about degenerative disc disease in the neck and get effective treatment options recommended by physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 4, 2024
Table of Contents

Degenerative disc disease in your neck can sound scary. But it sounds worse than it actually is. It’s not a disease, either. “It’s the name given to the general aging process of your spine,” explains Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.

Most people who develop degenerative disc disease in the neck, or cervical degenerative disc disease, don’t show symptoms. Those who do often find that they respond very well to conservative treatments like exercise, ice or heat, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy.

Read on for more reassuring news about this very common condition.

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Vinci is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in orthopedics, persistent pain, and mindfulness based stress reduction.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) refers to normal, age-related changes to the intervertebral discs in your back and neck, which act as cushions between the bones (or vertebrae) in your spine. “Your discs support each segment of the bones of your spine,” says Dr. Vinci. “They are designed to stretch and provide shock absorption.” When those discs thin and wear down, they can contribute to changes in spine function and, sometimes, pain.

Degenerative disc disease can happen anywhere in your spine, but it’s most common in the cervical discs in the upper neck region, as well as the lumbar discs of the lower back. Changes to intervertebral discs also happen to pretty much everyone. A study in the American Journal of Neuroradiology, for example, found that 68% of people over the age of 40 with no pain showed signs of disc degeneration on MRIs. 

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms 

It’s important to remember that not everyone who has degenerative disc disease in the neck will have associated symptoms. But here are some degenerative disc disease symptoms:

  • Neck pain. It can be mild discomfort to more persistent pain, but it tends to be most noticeable when you stand or sit upright, and gets better when you recline or lie down.

  • Neck stiffness. “You may find that you can’t move your head down or look up as far as you used to,” says Dr. Vinci. This is because age-related disc changes can contribute to some loss of spine mobility.

  • Numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness that extends down your arm. “When your discs change, they may press on and irritate nearby nerves that cause these symptoms,” says Dr. Vinci.

Degenerative Disc Disease: A Hinge Health Perspective

The term “cervical degenerative disc disease” might sound scary. It’s natural to feel alarmed if you’re told you have this condition. “Degenerative disc disease is as normal a part of aging as developing wrinkles or gray hair,” stresses Dr. Vinci. Most people will eventually develop it as they get older, and won’t have any symptoms at all. 

If you do have symptoms, know that you can continue to live your life. It’s common to be reluctant to move because of fear that you’ll make DDD or your pain worse. “Remember: Your spine, including your cervical spine, is very resilient,” points out Dr. Vinci. Your neck supports your head and allows it to move, and it only becomes stronger with movement. 

Exercises that support and strengthen your cervical spine, along with the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support it, help your neck stay flexible and mobile. This prevents muscles from weakening and tightening, which can lead to pain. That’s why we at Hinge Health always say movement is medicine.

“Everyone will develop some level of degenerative disc disease in their spine at some point,” points out Dr. Vinci. But some things can accelerate it. They include:

  • High impact sports. Sports like gymnastics, soccer, and weightlifting, where a lot of impact is placed on your neck, may raise your risk of developing degenerative disc disease in your neck, Dr. Vinci notes.

  • Electronics use. Tilting your neck down to gaze at a device, such as your cell phone, may put additional stress on your cervical discs. (This is sometimes referred to as tech neck.) When you sit in a neutral position, your head weighs about 12 pounds. But the pressure that’s placed on your discs increases when you tilt your head down. Although your neck is incredibly strong, taking breaks and changing positions helps to keep pain at bay. 

  • Smoking. It’s been shown to raise the risk of developing degenerative disc disease. It’s thought that chemicals in cigarettes can damage disc cells and impede blood flow to the area.

  • Past injury. If you’ve hurt your cervical spine through something like a sports collision or car accident, discs may degenerate earlier than they otherwise would, explains Dr. Vinci.

  • Genetics. “Some people are just born with a spinal alignment that makes them more likely to develop degenerative disc disease in their neck,” says Dr. Vinci.

While you can develop cervical degenerative disc disease at any age, “the tipping point seems to be about age 40,” says Dr. Vinci. Research has found that about 60% of people in their forties show signs of the condition, though most don’t have symptoms.

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Treatments 

Most cases of degenerative disc disease in the neck can be treated conservatively at home, says Dr. Vinci. Some degenerative disc disease treatments include:

  • Targeted exercises. Stretching and strengthening exercises like the ones in the section below can help strengthen neck muscles, improve range of motion, increase blood flow and nutrient delivery to the neck, and ultimately help prevent and relieve neck pain related to DDD.

  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist can show you specific exercises to help you relieve pain and strengthen and stretch strained muscles. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) medication such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for neck pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history. If you experience a severe pain flare, your doctor may prescribe a short course of oral corticosteroids to help relieve pain by reducing inflammation, or muscle relaxants to prevent pain signals from reaching the brain.

  • Ice or heat. One study found that patients who used a heating pad or cold pack on their neck for 30 minutes reported similar pain relief to those who just took over-the-counter ibuprofen. “Either ice or heat is fine — it really depends on your preference,” says Dr. Vinci.

  • Massage. There’s some evidence that massage can help to relieve cervical degenerative disc disease symptoms. You can also try acupuncture, where a practitioner inserts tiny needles into your body to block pain signals. Be sure to talk to your doctor or physical therapist before trying either of these.   

Exercises for a Healthy Neck

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Head Turns
  • Supine Chin Tuck
  • Cat Cow
  • Seated Trap Stretch

One of the best ways to limit pain from cervical degenerative disc disease is to do neck strengthening and stretching exercises. The above are a few that are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Prevention

Since degenerative disc disease is a normal part of aging, you can’t actually prevent it from occurring, says Dr. Vinci. But a healthy lifestyle can help keep your body strong and resilient, so that you’re less likely to experience symptoms such as pain or stiffness. Here are some things that may help:

  • Stay active. Even just walking can help to strengthen your upper back and neck muscles, notes Dr. Vinci. Research shows that strong neck and trunk muscles can minimize the effects of cervical degenerative disc disease on your everyday life.

  • Don’t smoke. Putting down the cigarettes helps all parts of your body, including the discs of your spine. If you do smoke, consider quitting or trying to cut back. And if you can, it’s best to avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible, too.

  • Stay hydrated. “As you get older, your cervical discs can dry out, which leaves them more susceptible to injury,” says Dr. Vinci. If you drink plenty of fluids such as water, you can help counter some of those effects and relieve pain. 

  • Get plenty of sleep. “When you lie down and rest, all of your body rehydrates and regenerates, including your cervical discs,” says Dr. Vinci. Plus, if you’re well-rested, you’ll also be less bothered if you do have pain.

PT Tip: Don’t Be Alarmed By a Scary Name

“Degenerative disc disease can sound scary, since it’s a long name with the word ‘disease’ in it,” says Dr. Vinci. “Remember that it’s just a name for normal aging of your spine. You can still live a healthy life and you don’t have to be deterred by pain.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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