Published: February 9, 2012
Have you ever noticed that people tend to "shrink" as they age?
Most people end up being shorter in their 40s and 50s than they were when they left high school.
As you can probably imagine, our leg bones do not shrivel up. Our pelvic bones remain intact and the actual spinal bones do not become shorter (except in cases of spinal fracture).
So... how do we become shorter?
The answer is in the condition of the spinal discs.
Over time after about age 40, many of us will lose some height due to degeneration or injury to the spinal discs.
Between each spinal bone (called vertebrae) there is a cartilaginous spinal disc, called the intervertebral disc.
This disc is an amazing structure.
In a healthy state, the inner-most core of the disc resembles a ball of jelly in some respects. This inner core, or nucleus, is surrounded by 16-20 layers of tough fibrous bands called the annulus.
Under normal conditions, the annulus attaches firmly to the upper and lower vertebrae and provides strength and integrity to the spinal disc by containing the nucleus within the center of the disc.
In cases involving injury and other causes of degeneration, this nucleus begins to deteriorate and dry out. This is called desiccation.
Normally, the nucleus is considered hydrophilic, which means that it attracts water to maintain its normal healthy state. As it deteriorates after an injury, it gradually becomes dryer and undergoes a decay process.
This causes the disc to lose height. What was normally a structure that would be about a half-inch thick becomes a quarter-inch or less in thickness.
As you can guess, if this process involves more than a single disc, as it often does, the impact on a person's height can be noticeable. Just four discs losing half their normal height will cause a loss of one inch or more.
Discs need two important things to minimize shrinkage: water and movement.
When a spinal joint is injured the result is often a decreased ability for the joint to move. The pain may resolve, but often the spinal joint is left less functional than it was previously.
Even if a person does a great job of drinking sufficient water to keep their fluid levels healthy, if each and every spinal joint is not fully functional, disc deterioration can occur and the process of desiccation and decay will accelerate.
Exercise can play an important role in keeping spinal joints functional. However, when damage has already occurred, exercise is not sufficient to accomplish rehydration. The spinal joints need manipulation or mobilization to help restore their function.
Another valuable treatment for injured or degenerated discs is spinal decompression. Non-surgical spinal decompression is a new conservative therapy that has developed during the past decade.
Spinal decompression has been shown to be helpful in restoring a more normal height to spinal discs. It also helps re-hydrate the disc to reverse the degenerative process. For conditions such as herniated discs and spinal degeneration, spinal decompression can help undo some of the damage that has led to pain and disability.
This week’s suggestion for a healthier lifestyle is to make sure you drink plenty of water and keep moving to help keep your spinal discs healthy.
Next week I will tell an embarrassing story on myself. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes.
Until then, stay healthy and stay happy.