I’m sure everyone has heard someone make mention at some point that they feel like they’ve shrunk as they’ve gotten older. While this is definitely a very real possibility, it can also be one that doesn’t have to come to pass to the extent that some people experience. First and foremost, posture will be the biggest determining factor of this phenomenon. If we frequently spend time each day in hunched over positions (at the computer, reading, looking at phones, etc.), we train the spine to adopt that as more of our normal posture and, as a result, later in life we lose the ability to fully straighten up as the muscles and joints have gone through permanent change. Next on the list would be the health of your intervertebral discs, which is what we will discuss here today. The discs serve many functions in our spine, primary of which is to allow motion in the neck and back so that we can bend, twist, rotate and do all the normal movements of everyday life. They also act as “spacers” between the vertebrae to allow passage of our spinal nerves that come off the spinal cord so that the brain can communicate with all parts of our body.
Our discs are made up of two components: the nucleus pulposus and the annular fibers. Imagine if you took a hardboiled egg in an egg carton and sliced off the top; that is roughly what a disc would look like. The yolk would represent the nucleus, which is a jelly-like material that provides shock absorbency, fluidity and distributes the pressure that we put on our bodies. The white would represent the layers of annular fibers that surround the nucleus. These are similar to other ligaments we have in the body and run horizontally, vertically and diagonally all around the nucleus. They give strength and support to our spine and serve to protect the nucleus and keep it centered in the disc.
One of the two most common injuries we hear of is a bulging disc. When the spine is subjected to more force than it can handle, either quickly as with an accident or over time from repetitive stress, the annular fibers can begin to tear and the nucleus will push outwards, leading to a bulge or rupture. If it causes pressure on the nearby nerves, then we can experience pain, numbness, weakness or loss of function. The other main issue would be degenerative disc disease, which is a “wear and tear” effect on the discs over the course of a lifetime and will be dictated by how much stress we put on our discs and how well we take care of them. Since degeneration is an irreversible process and can lead to chronic pain and neurological issues, we need to make sure we are doing all we can to keep them healthy.
First would be to simply keep moving! Discs get their fluids and stay hydrated by a pumping action that comes from movement and forces being applied to them. While they do need rest when we are normally lying down for the night for healing and repair, avoiding prolonged sitting or static positions for long periods by routinely getting up and moving around has been shown to help maintain fluidity in the discs. Regular exercise and stretching will also make a big difference in long-term maintenance of disc health. At night, it is best to avoid sleeping on your stomach as this puts unnecessary rotational stress on your spine for several hours. Sleeping on your back or side where the spine is allowed to be in its natural, neutral position will put the least amount of stress on the discs. And as always, whether sitting or standing, try to maintain proper posture at all times.
When we are born our discs are about 80% water and this will slowly decrease as we age, so staying properly hydrated is critical to maintaining the health of our discs. The fluid helps regulate the pressures the discs are subjected to and allows nutrients to enter the tissues and waste products to be removed. On average, most people should be aiming for half of their body weight in ounces as the minimum amount of water ingested each day. Smoking should be eliminated because it interferes with nutrition for the spinal discs by preventing the good oxygen flow needed to keep them healthy. Alcohol use should also be minimized as it is known to decrease hydration throughout the body. By adopting these simple lifestyle steps, you can set yourself up for keeping your discs as healthy as possible and holding on to every inch you’ve earned over the course of your lifetime.