The human spine consists of a series of bony vertebrae with spongy discs between each bone, absorbing shock and allowing for the flexion, bending, and twisting of the spine during everyday life. These discs are tough and rubbery, but they can crack, swell, break open, and herniate.
Degenerative disc disease describes the natural process by which these discs eventually become damaged, often through the wear-and-tear of living life. When these discs swell or get damaged, they harm the integrity of the spine, compress the nerve roots that surround the lower and upper vertebrae, and become the cause of much pain. This causes a painful, sore, and very stiff back, and can affect the body in a multitude of ways, from localized back pain to radiating pain in the extremities.
However, that damage is not necessarily unavoidable. While our discs do degenerate over time, that degeneration can be halted or slowed. The right lifestyle, and the right choices, can lead to a healthier and stronger backbone and less pain over the years. Even in individuals who are experiencing degenerating discs, these tips can help improve quality of life and stop certain symptoms from becoming much worse.
Is It Always Age?
Magnetic resonance imaging shows that nearly everyone past the age of 60 shows signs of disc degeneration. This coincides with the fact that as we get older, we’re at a greater risk of experiencing back pain.
Yet not everyone with degenerated discs experiences back pain, and the degrees of degeneration differ. Furthermore, you can struggle with degenerative disc disease long before you become a sexagenarian. Note that while it’s called a degenerative disc ‘disease’, it is not a disease. It is simply the state of having damaged and/or degenerated spinal discs, which can occur as a result of extreme exercise, very demanding physical work, genetics, an injury, or age. In many cases, it’s a combination of several different factors.
While the body boasts an amazing system capable of some serious regeneration, the discs between our vertebrae is one of several places where we just don’t get a lot of blood flow, and as such, the body can’t get to work repairing these discs. Sooner or later, they deteriorate. This happens for everyone, but the process can be slowed – and it isn’t always immediately painful.
Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease
With the strict definition that degenerative discs involve the deterioration of the discs, it’s important to remember that this is generally an unavoidable condition. However, it only truly becomes a problem – and can be considered a ‘disease’ – when it begins to be the cause for some serious pains and complaints.
If you struggle with any of the following symptoms, there is a chance that a herniated or damaged disc could be the cause. These include:
- Weakness in the leg or foot.
- Tingling sensation in the extremities on a regular basis.
- Sudden and severe pain in the leg or back.
- Pain that lessens from curling into a fetal position, lying down flat, supporting the back, or otherwise shifting weight and posture.
- Pain that gets worse when sitting.
- Pain that gets worse when bending over.
- Pain that lessens when swimming or walking.
- Pain in the neck.
- Pain in the buttocks.
- Pain in the thighs.
Most the pain caused by a deteriorating disc is caused by the compression of several nerves around the expanding and swollen disc, causing discomfort and pain throughout different parts of the body. Discs can also get small tears or become thinner over time, leading to excess motion and abnormal rubbing. Other problems include dried out discs and bone spurs.
Sciatica, a common condition due to the rate at which people are injured or hurt in the lower back, is caused by a compressed sciatic nerve causing pain and weakness to radiate from the buttock and thigh down to the foot. A degenerative disc can be a cause of sciatica.
A Progressive Condition
Unlike some other conditions, if left unaddressed, chances are that degenerative disc disease becomes worse. Because the discs no longer repair themselves properly, degenerative disc disease is considered a progressive problem, meaning it will continue to grow in size and scope unless handled properly.
Because it is also a condition that occurs in nearly everyone at some point, these preventative measures and tips go for anyone, regardless of their history of osteoarthritis or other forms of inflammatory pain and spinal health. While none of these factors guarantee that you won’t hurt yourself, they can greatly improve the odds of not struggling with back pain as a result of deteriorating spinal discs.
Cut the Booze and the Smokes
We all generally understand that alcohol and cigarettes aren’t hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle, but aside from promoting the deterioration of your organs, they also promote the deterioration of your spine.
Excessive or frequent alcohol consumption and tobacco smoking can lead to faster degeneration and damage in your bones and surrounding tissues. Nicotine and tobacco have been linked to greater risk for fractures and osteoporosis, as well as back pain.
A diet of whole grains varied and copious vegetables, as well as moderate amounts of animal meat can help you keep strong and healthy bones, and a healthier spine. It’s important to source your nutrients not just from tablets or fortified foods, but from whole foods, due to better bioavailability and the way our body deals with nutrition.
On the other side, excess sugars should be avoided. Aside from contributing to a myriad of other health problems, a poor diet can also lead to excess bodyweight, which further impacts your spine due to constant added stress.
Maintain Good Posture
Good posture minimizes the shearing forces applied to the spine throughout the day, which basically means that your spine has less force to withstand when applying a healthier posture.
But constant slouching, walking in high heels, sleeping on a bad mattress or lifting heavy weight with a flexed spine can place immense amounts of stress on the discs between your vertebrae, grinding them together with tremendous force.
Exercise for a Stronger Spine
Weight training and strength training are key to preventing further disc degeneration, because by building the musculature surrounding the spine, you can take a lot of pressure off the discs. Moderation is key, as is a program catering to your needs, pre-existing conditions, and preferences.
People respond differently to different exercise programs, and there are countless factors both environmental and genetic controlling how well the body responds to different training schemes, from low weights and high repetitions, to high weight with fewer repetitions, greater training volume at lower intensity, lower volume with higher intensity, fewer or more rest days and recovery methods, and so on.
You Can’t Always Prevent It
We all age, and our bodies eventually develop problems that can lead to aches, pains, and bruises.
Minimizing these problems improves our overall quality of life, and there are many other benefits to eating well and exercising regularly, from feeling physically healthier to making the most of the endorphins training produces. A healthier lifestyle can lead to a stronger spine, but when the pain is too great to bear, other methods must be considered.