Right now, while you are sitting there reading this, your spinal discs are slowly deteriorating.

There is no need for panic. It is an extraordinarily slow process. But it is occurring.

You cannot feel the slow deterioration of spinal discs. You are likely to be aware of your discs only in circumstances involving an injury such as a sprain, fall, auto collision or other mishap.

The best way to slow this deterioration is to maintain healthy function of your spinal joints. That involves not only avoiding injury but taking action to keep your discs healthy as well.

The design of spinal discs provides incredible stability and ability to withstand pressure, but also allow very diverse movement.

The key to that versatile maneuverability is the ball-bearing-like center of the disc, called the nucleus. In a healthy disc, this nucleus acts like a bearing upon which the vertebra above rests and can tilt in any direction. Because the nucleus in a healthy disc is compressible, like a strong rubber ball, it also provides shock absorption.

The magnificent strength and stability are provided by the outer portion of the spinal disc. Surrounding the nucleus are multiple layers of fibrous bands called the annulus. The annular fibers wrap the nucleus to strengthen the compressive resistance in the shock absorber role. They also maintain limitations on the movement to keep the spinal joint from becoming displaced.

These fibers originate in the vertebra above the disc and insert into the vertebra below the disc, thereby containing the nucleus. They are oriented at a 45-degree angle, with each successive layer being angled in the opposite direction.

Although many people are beset by back injuries and sometimes disability, considering all that our spinal joints endure in a lifetime, it is amazing that the discs hold up as long as they do.

Even if engineers create a product similar to a human disc out of the finest available man-made materials, the results are dismal compared to actual human discs. Human discs often stay functional throughout our entire life except in cases of severe degeneration or injury.

However, the degeneration that is slowly occurring as we live day to day makes us vulnerable to spinal disability. All discs degenerate to some degree. Thankfully, this is usually a naturally slow process.

Disc degeneration occurs more rapidly after discs have been injured, even mildly. Injuries to the spine typically involve micro-tears of the connective tissues of the spine, including the discs.

As a result of these injuries, the disc degeneration speeds up considerably. However, the disc deterioration resulting from injury is often not discovered until several years after the injury.

One aspect of a spinal injury that affects the discs is the loss of motion that occurs in the joints that are injured. Just like any other joint that is injured, a spinal joint that has been sprained will immediately become fixated to some degree.

This fixation often continues unnoticed for years. The patient may be aware that they have lost some overall spinal flexibility, but often they are not aware of the specific spinal joint fixation.

This fixation is a primary reason that accelerated disc degeneration occurs following injury. Normal spinal joint motion pumps fluids and nutrients into the disc and removes waste products of cellular metabolism. This lack of motion results in decreased spinal disc fluid, decreased cellular nutrition and build-up of metabolic toxins.

If the spinal joints are restored to full function by manual treatment such as chiropractic manipulation and rehab exercises promptly after an injury, the health of the spinal disc is improved.

When I examine a person with spinal complaints, I look for areas of decreased spinal function that may indicate spinal disc degenerative changes. In many cases imaging such as x-ray or MRI will be helpful as well.

Proper treatment can slow the process of spinal disc degeneration and help spinal discs last a lifetime. This is important, since there are no truly successful man-made replacements for an injured spinal disc.

Dr. Mark Kestner is a licensed chiropractic physician and acupuncturist with 30-plus years of experience focused primarily on treating complex and chronic spine, joint and neurological conditions in Murfreesboro. His office is at 1435 NW Broad St. Contact him at mkestner@DrKestner.com.

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