Many people believe that degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a part of getting older, but that is simply not true. A healthy lifestyle can go a long way in keeping your intervertebral discs safe.
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
The spine is made up of 24 vertebrae, as well as the sacrum and coccyx, which are separate bones. In between each one of these vertebrae is a vertebral disc; 23 discs in total. These discs have three primary functions:
– Act as shock absorbers
-Act as tough ligaments to hold the vertebrae together
-Perform as cartilaginous joints that allow for flexibility in the spine
Each disc has a soft inner layer, called the nucleus pulposa, and a hard outer layer, the annulus. As people age, the soft nuclei of intervertebral discs start to lose their softness — they dry out, a process known as desiccation.
Desiccation has two negative effects. First, the discs are less effective shock absorbers. Second, the nucleus is more susceptible to punching through the annulus, which is a common condition called disc herniation. This creates bulges in the disc, and if these bulges press on a nearby nerve root, it can cause back pain, radiating pain, or numbness, weakness or tingling in the arms or legs.
Preventing Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease is a chronic condition and often a slow process. You likely will have some time between your first tinge of back pain and very dried out discs. Many things can be done to lower the risk or progression of DDD.
Stop smoking, or better yet, don’t start — smoking increases the rate of desiccation
-Be active – regular exercise to increase the strength and flexibility of muscles that surround and support the spine
-Lift with proper body mechanics to avoid stressing your spine and herniating your discs
-Maintain a healthy body weight — a high BMI places additional stressors on the spine
-Reduce alcohol intake
-Use vitamins and supplements to help maintain healthy bone structure.