I have some terrible news for you all.  Your spine is degenerating. Like the Colorado River slowly eroding rock into the Grand Canyon, so your spine is slowly eroding as well.  Diagnoses like “degenerative disk disease”, “spinal stenosis”, and “spondylosis” are likely. In fact, studies have found that 80% of individuals have degenerative disk disease by the time they’re 50 years old1.  That number shoots to 93% by the time you’re 70.   This really isn’t a question of if you will get disk degeneration, but when.  So what are you going to do about it? Here are three practical tips to manage your eroding spine:

Degeneration is Normal

Before you become too depressed, understand that degeneration to a large degree is a normal result of aging, and need not be painful.  In fact, the figures I reported above were reporting the incidence of disk degeneration in people without pain.  Read that again.  80% of people WITHOUT back pain have MRI-confirmed disk degeneration.  So while you would likely receive a diagnosis of disk degeneration if you were to have an MRI performed, you are also likely NOT going to have any pain related to this “diagnosis”.  How is this possible? Simply put, while your spine is “degenerating”, we now know that this process is a normal age-related change we go through, and needn’t be painful at all. In fact, medical professionals commonly refer to these changes as “wrinkles on the inside” – unsightly, sure, but not concerning, uncommon, or foreboding.  

Regular Exercise and Physical Therapy

While we’ve already touched on the fact that disk degeneration is normal aging process, there are several things that you can do to counteract the progression of these normal changes into actual pain.  The first recommendation is to perform regular physical exercise. While this might seem like an obvious remedy, only 23% of American adults aged 18-64 are actually meeting the CDC’s exercise guidelines, which recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise, as well as two days per week of strengthening2.  By formulating a plan to improve you fitness levels to meet these demands, you will dramatically reduce the risk of developing sustained low back pain.  For those of you who fall into the 77% of individuals NOT performing the recommended exercise, I strongly recommend you find a physical therapist who commonly treats low back pain, and ask him or her to help set up a program for you that will meet these goals.  They will have advanced training and experience formulating an exercise program that will help you achieve your goals and prevent low back pain.

Build Some Strength

For those of you who already have low back pain that have been told you have disk degeneration, spinal stenosis, spondylosis, or some other depressing-sounding diagnosis, RELAX!  This diagnosis by no means implies that you’re inevitably going to be bed-bound, that you can’t do anything fun, or that for the rest of your life you have to be careful not to break your back.  What you need to do is…you guessed it, get moving and build up your strength! The best way to start this process is to find a physical therapist who is adept at treating low back pain. He or she will perform a comprehensive physical examination, discuss relevant findings, and work with you to create a plan to reach your goals.  This will include a combination of manual therapy when appropriate, aerobic exercise and strengthening exercises designed to reduce pain, improve range of motion, strength and function, all while working towards achieving your goals.

So the bad news is that your low back is degenerating.  But the good news is that it might not matter – by staying proactive, finding a physical therapy to use as a professional resource to help you achieve your goals, and building new and healthier habits, you can reduce the deleterious effects of an “eroding” spine and get on with your life.  Heck, maybe you’ll even want to climb the Grand Canyon!

References:

  1. Brinjikji W, Luetmer PH, Comstock B, et al. Systematic literature review of imaging features of spinal degeneration in asymptomatic populations. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2014;36(4):811-6.
  2. Blackwell DL, Clarke TC. State variation in meeting the 2008 federal guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities through leisure-time physical activity among adults aged 18–64: United States 2010–2015. National Health Statistics Reports; no 112. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2018.