Degenerative Disc Disease and Hatha Yoga

I’ve been asked a few times about back pain and degenerative disc disease – can yoga safely help? The short answer is yes. The path to health is a slow process that requires patience and persistence.

Back pain is one of the most common ailments of the modern era. It is the second most common complaint noted in physicians’ practices. Eighty percent of the population will report back pain at one point in their life. Among those with back pain, asymptomatic, degenerative changes associated with degenerative disc disease may be the underlying cause in many cases.


Photo by C. W. Clark

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is involved in disc conditions like bulging or ruptured (herniated) discs. It is also believed to be a factor in many other serious back conditions, including osteoarthritis of the spine and facet joint disorders. There is a debate as to whether DDD is part of the natural aging process or whether it is directly related to an abnormal condition of change in the discs. Therefore, not much can be done about it. That is what was thought about osteoporosis, until it was discovered that bone strength is strongly related to muscle strength. So perhaps you can do something about it.

A study done in 2011 and published in the European Health Journal shows that performing Hatha Yoga may be that ‘something’ that you can do about it. The spines of long-time (10 years or more) Hatha Yoga teachers were compared to a group of non-yoga practitioners using MRI imaging. The yoga teachers had significantly less spinal degeneration than the group of control subjects who were matched for age, sex, general health, and were non-smokers.

The researchers suggest that Hatha yoga may have slowed the natural aging process in discs. This may be because Hatha Yoga stretches and positions the spine which increases the ability of nutrients to diffuse into the disc.

This is very significant since MRI studies of healthy people without any symptoms of back problems have found that among people ages 20 to 39, one in three showed degenerative changes of the lumbar spine. In people ages 39 to 60, that number increased to almost six out of ten, or 57 percent. In people aged 60 to 80 years, almost eight out of ten—79 percent—showed some degree of disc degeneration in at least one disc.

This is very encouraging. The way to start is by practicing Hatha Yoga slowly and gently. It takes time and therefore patience and persistence to improve any bone condition. My recommendation is to begin with positions that are supported. For example, anything in that begins on the floor such as Cat/Cow, Thread the Needle, Puppy Pose, Downward Dog, Sphinx will gently stretch and strengthen your back.

It is the beauty of yoga that it can be adapted to your specific needs and desired health outcomes. You may opt to work one-on-one with a yoga teacher to develop a program specifically designed for you. This will ensure that you are performing the postures correctly and safely and provide a progressive path forward.