It is really important to keep our spinal discs healthy to help prevent back pain and aches, allow for full spinal function and to protect us when we move. The intervertebral discs are incredibly important but often get over looked.
First of all…
Why do we have intervertebral discs?
Spinal discs sit in-between the boney vertebrae, separating them form each other. They act as shock absorbers by helping absorb the forces traveling through the spine when we move; they prevent spinal joints and bones from grinding against each other; and allow us to move.
Without intervertebral discs our spine would be a purely boney column - strong, but immobile. It is the flexible intervertebral discs that allow us to bend, walk in nature, to lift up our kids, throw a ball and lounge on the the sofa in front of Netflix. They give us a relatively small amount of segmental movement between each vertebrae, but with 23 discs in the spine this adds up to a whole lot of movement.
They also protect the spine with their cushioning effect, giving suspension, absorbing impact. This helps protect the relatively brittle bones, increasing the overall strength of the spine.
What do spinal discs need to stay healthy and prevent back pain?
Three of the most important things that intervertebral discs need to stay healthy:
Unlike almost every other structure in the human body, intervertebral discs do not have a direct blood supply. They gain water and nutrients by osmosis - the slow diffusion of particles from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration.
This means the more hydrated you are, the more water and nutrients will diffuse into the intervertebral disc keeping it plump and healthy. This helps it’s shock absorbing ability and will slow the speed of the natural disc degeneration process.
Aim to drink at least 6-8 glasses of water a day.
Like most of you, I am writing this while sitting at home on my laptop. As I sit here working, the weight of my body and gravity is slowly compressing my spinal discs, encouraging them to flatten and squeezing out some of the water and nutrients from the discs. This is the reason we are a fraction taller when we first wake up in the morning after we’ve been lying horizontal for a few hours. Balancing out this natural compression with certain exercises is really useful.
Apart from gravity, one of the other major causes of spinal disc and joint compression is tight erector spinae muscles. These group of muscles run along either side of the whole spine. When they get tight and short they restrict spinal function and compress the vertebral discs and joints.
If our discs lose too much of their height it can narrow the tunnel where nerves exit the spine, making it more likely for nerves to get pinched or trapped.
Most of us can’t hang upside down like a bat or have an inversion table hidden away at home, but there are some easy things you can do at home to decompress the discs in your spine.
- Knee Hugs - bring your knees to your chest. Hold for 30-90 seconds and repeat several times.
- Childs Pose - Start on your knees, drop your chest down while reaching your arms forward.
- Foam rolling - use the Manta Foam Roller along the lower, upper and middle spine to loosen the erector spinae muscles.
Movement helps keep intervertebral discs healthy. As the discs move and stretch it can absorb more nutrients and water. It also acts as a natural mobilisation of the spinal joints and muscles.
Using a swiss ball while you work for a few hours a day at your desk is a really easy way to activate your abdominal muscles, work the lower back muscles and keep the discs moving sufficiently. The gentle bouncing is really good for the discs, especially in your lower back as the spinning motion going through the lower discs help them absorb the nutrients and water they depend on.
If you can take a break every now and then to move away from your work station, that is also super important. Thank about setting an alarm or having it in your calendar so you don't get so absorbed by work you don’t release that 5 hours has gone by with out you changing position.
The type of movement you do doesn’t really matter whether it’s yoga, running or any of the myriad of activities people can do. Do what ever you enjoy, so you’re more likely to stick at it. Whatever you enjoy - Just Move.