Working in front of a computer all day can seriously affect your spine health.
There is an old saying in India: The body is as young as the spine is supple. A simple statement, yet it holds a key to understanding not just how to prevent debilitating back problems, but how to stay healthy and vital throughout life.
The role that the back and spinal cord play in our overall health and vitality deserves much more attention than it currently receives in the Western framework of health and disease. Keeping the back healthy isn’t just important in order to prevent back problems. It may be one of the best things you can do for your long-term health.
There are four main ways in which the health of the back impacts your overall health.
1. Degenerative Changes
An estimated 80 percent of the population will suffer from back pain at one point in their lives. Back pain is the second most common reason for doctor’s visits, second only to the common cold.
While there are many different diagnoses for back pain, most back pain has a common origin: degenerative changes in the vertebrae of the spine and in the intervertebral discs. These are subclinical, imperceptible changes, which precede diagnosable conditions.
One of the most widespread of these changes is degenerative disc disease (DDD). DDD is involved in disc conditions like bulging or ruptured (herniated) discs. It is, however, also a contributing factor to many other serious back conditions, which afflict people as they get older, including osteoarthritis of the spine, facet joint disorders, and spinal stenosis (a painful and sometimes debilitating condition, which involves a narrowing of the spinal canal).
If you’ve never had a disc problem, you might presume that degenerative disc disease is not an issue for you. Unfortunately, chances are that that is not the case. The asymptomatic, degenerative changes associated with DDD are much more common than most people realize. MRI studies of healthy people without any symptoms of back problems have found that among people aged 20 to 39, one in three showed degenerative changes of the lumbar spine. In people aged 39 to 60, that number increased to almost six out of ten, or 57 percent. In people aged 60 to 80 years, almost eight out of ten (79 percent) showed some degree of disc degeneration in at least one disc.
Like osteoporosis, disc degeneration is a progressive, degenerative condition, which increases with age. The more advanced the deterioration of the disc, the greater the chance of problems that spread to other parts of the spine. Degenerative disc disease is so common, in fact, that most doctors hold that it is a “natural part of aging.” Well, so was osteoporosis, until it was discovered that bone strength is strongly related to muscle strength. Similarly, there are things that you can do to stay among those 21 percent of 60- to 80-year-olds who did not show any degenerative changes.
Take a moment and look at yourself sideways in the mirror. Is your head way forward of your shoulders? Are your shoulders rounded and slumped forward? Or has your lower back lost its normal curve? Has your pelvis moved forward of the center line of the body into a typical swayback stance?
Poor posture, most people will agree, is not particularly flattering. However, poor posture affects more than just your good looks. The structural changes created by bad posture overload the muscles of the back or the intervertebral discs, which in turn can contribute to degenerative disc disease, along with other degenerative changes of the spine.
Poor posture affects your health in numerous other ways, however. One group of researchers, led by John Lennon, BM, MM. C., and Norman Shealy, M.D., put it this way in an article in American Journal of Pain Management:
[We believe] that posture affects and moderates every physiologic function from breathing to hormonal production. Spinal pain, headache, mood, blood pressure, pulse, and lung capacity are among the functions most easily influenced by posture.
The most significant influences of posture are upon respiration, oxygenation, and sympathetic function. Ultimately, it appears that homeostasis and autonomic regulation are intimately connected with posture. The corollary of these observations is that many symptoms, including pain, may be moderated or eliminated by improved posture.
Translation? Posture impacts all bodily functions, particularly breathing and thereby the oxygen supply to the body’s cells. Posture also affects the sympathetic function of the body, and its ability to regulate itself and maintain internal balance.
In our experience, once established, it takes a while to counteract poor postural habits and restore normal ones. It involves not just strengthening weak muscles and stretching muscles that have grown tight, but a fundamental resetting of body awareness and the sense of your body in space. However, retraining postural habits is entirely possible, and generally speaking, the earlier you start, the better.
3. Increase Flexibility for Health
Take this simple flexibility test. Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Now, bend forward as far as you can. Can you still touch your toes? If you’ve never been able to touch your toes, can you still reach as far as when you were younger?
Losing flexibility as you grow older, particularly of the spine and trunk, may seem like little more than a nuisance. However, new research suggests that flexibility of the trunk and back may be related to flexibility of the arteries, and there by to your risk of cardio-vascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.
Why? Arterial stiffness has recently been identified as an independent risk factor for cardio-vascular disorders and for mortality. Research indicates that the inability to bend your trunk and spine indicates that not just your muscles, but your arteries too may have lost flexibility and become stiff and rigid. Healthy arteries are flexible and elastic, which helps keep blood pressure normal. Age-related stiffening of the arteries, according to the researchers, is a precursor of the loss of arterial integrity, which in turn leads to high blood pressure, a propensity to develop blood clots in the linking of the arteries, and possibly stroke and heart attack.
4. Loss of Structure Means Loss of Function
Last but not least: as goes the structure of your body, so goes its function. The link between the structural and the functional health of the body is one of the great insights brought to us courtesy the traditions of manual therapy, such as chiropractic, osteopathy, Rolfing, cranio-sacral therapy, and most other traditions of bodywork.
Bad posture, of course, is the most obvious, visible expression of structural imbalance. However, distortional patterns are not just present in postural aberrations. There are much more subtle, invisible forms of structural distortions, such as lack of symmetry, chronic muscle tension, and subluxations.
A subluxation is generally taken to mean a partial dislocation or misalignment of the bones or joints along the spinal column. However, as chiropractors and osteopaths in particular have emphasized, while subluxations (or lesions in osteopathic parlance) are structural in origin, they have functional effects, in particular nerve interference.
Nerve interference is the main link through which structure impacts function. Subtle structural distortions put pressure on the fine, minute strands of nerves that flow through the spinal cord. When nerve flow gets compromised, the organ or body part, which the nerve supplies with information, may not receive the messages needed to coordinate their function with the rest of the body. The effect is like someone stepping on a water hose, and interfering with the flow of water.
The more distortional patterns interfere with the nerve messages from the brain to the body, the more the communication from brain to organs and the nervous system’s ability to control the nervous body is compromised. This, in turn, affects the overall health of the body in numerous subtle ways.
Are distortional tension patterns an issue for you? You betcha. Everyone suffers to some degree from distortional patterns in the soft tissues or bones—it’s just part of life. However, whether or not these cause problems for you is a matter of degree. And, as distortional patterns will tend to magnify with age, it’s a matter of what you do to counteract and minimize their influence as your body gets older.
In short, keeping the back healthy may well impact how much of your vitality, well-being, and functionality you’ll be able to retain as you grow older.
Part II: Next month, we’ll explore the things you can do to protect yourself from common back-related issues and retain greater vitality through life.
Bodyworkers and movement therapists Terry Smith, Ph.D., LMT, and Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D, LMT, are co-founders of the Healthy Back, Healthy Body program, which focuses on restoring balance and fluidity to the spine.