Oh, My Aching Back!

Oh, My Aching Back!


The problem could be degenerative disc disease — a medical term for what happens when the shock absorbing cartilage between the vertebrae wears out.

degenerative disc disease

Maridav / 123RF Photo

One of the most common back problems among older adults is degenerative disc disease, which isn’t a disease at all but a stream of changes in spinal discs that results from natural aging, chronic wear and tear, or injury. While we can’t avoid the main risk factor for degenerative disc disease — the accumulation of birthdays — numerous lifestyle measures can help prevent the condition.

Spinal discs, which sit between bony vertebrae, act as “shock absorbers” that cushion most of the pressure and stress of everyday movements and help us bend and flex. Gradual changes from degenerative disc disease — which typically occurs in the lower back or neck but is possible in any area of the spine – include loss of fluid in the discs, tears in the outer layers of discs, and growth of nerve fibers in damaged discs, all of which can lead to chronic pain.

Disc degeneration is the beginning of what many call the degenerative cascade. Several other spinal problems can result as discs continue to deteriorate, including bone spurs, herniated discs and spinal stenosis. Severe degenerative disc disease can also limit your range of motion, as well as cause pain from tiny motions occurring in the spine as the discs no longer performs their job. That’s why it’s so important to identify symptoms and catch this problem early.

Understanding causes of degenerative disc disease

Avoiding degenerative disc disease begins with understanding its causes. These include risk factors that can’t be changed — such as advancing age and a family history of the condition — as well as risk factors that can be modified. These include sports involvement; back injury; smoking; heavy physical work or lifting; and obesity.

It is also useful to know the symptoms of degenerative disc disease to quickly identify symptoms of the condition, which include pain in the low back, buttocks, thighs or neck; pain that worsens when sitting, bending, lifting or twisting; pain that feels better when walking, changing positions or lying down; periods of severe pain that improves after days or even months; and numbness, weakness or tingling in the legs.

These spinal changes are more likely to occur among those who don’t properly take care of themselves — gaining too much weight, for example, or smoking tobacco even after knowing its many dangers. Obviously, we can’t control all our risk factors for degenerative disc disease, but it’s crucial to take hold of those we can and maximize preventive spine care.

Tips on how to avoid degenerative disc disease

Numerous lifestyle measures can help maintain the health of spinal discs and prevent the problem. They include:

Drinking plenty of water: Disc degeneration occurs when spongy spinal discs gradually lose water volume, so drinking water helps keep discs strong and also helps avoid weight gain, which puts added stress on the spine.

Eating healthy foods: Eat to nourish your bones — including spinal vertebrae that support discs — by consuming leafy green vegetables, whole grain pastas and breads, fish, nuts and dairy products.

Exercising regularly: Strong back muscles support the spine and discs, with regular exercise contributing to blood and nutrient flow to muscles and to the release of pain-soothing chemicals known as endorphins.

Modifying back positions and movements: Improving posture, frequently changing position when sitting, lifting with the legs and not the back, and sleeping on a supportive mattress all contribute to preventive spine care.

You can’t stop your joints from wearing out, but like with any mechanical device, proper maintenance and care will do a lot to extend their mileage.

Kaixuan Liu, M.D., Ph.D.,Kaixuan Liu, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. He is the founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with three locations in New Jersey in West Orange, Edison and North Bergen and one location in New York City.
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