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 resulting from natural aging, chronic wear and tear, or injury. But 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, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.
Spinal discs, which sit between bony vertebrae, act as “shock absorbers”, cushioning most of the pressure and stress of everyday movements and helping 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,’” explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. “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, Dr. Liu says. 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.
Dr. Liu notes that it’s 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,” Dr. Liu says. “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 degenerative disc disease. According to Dr. Liu, these 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.