Spinal disc changes are a normal part of ageing. In fact – at some point or another – all of us will experience disc degeneration to a certain extent.
Disc degeneration is sometimes referred to as wear and tear or abnormalities on scans, though "normal age-related changes or adaptations" might be a better description. In many cases, degenerative disc changes are a bit like grey hair. They become more prevalent as you age, but they don't necessarily mean you will experience more headaches. In the same way, disc degeneration doesn't have to mean that you have to get back pain. Especially if you keep your body healthy by staying physically active and exercising.
All this aside, discs can still cause pain when they protrude and press on a nerve root. But, the question is – should you be worried about it?
To answer that question, let’s break things down a bit.
Firstly, discs sit between the bones in the spine. They consist of water, fluid, and cartilage. One of their main functions is to help absorb shock as you go about your regular, daily activities. In other words, these discs are very strong, robust, and resilient. As such, they can tolerate a huge amount of stress, compressive forces, bending and twisting. They are a pretty awesome structure, actually!
But, just like anything, there is a threshold for how much these discs can tolerate and when that threshold is reached: pain or even injury may occur. The level of pain, however, will depend on many factors, including both genetics and lifestyle.
Disc herniation can arise from acute trauma or repetitive stress. Usually, it’s the lower lumbar discs – L4-L5 or L5-S1 – that become injured. These injuries are most prevalent in the adult population. Interestingly disc herniations are also quite frequent among individuals not experiencing pain (which we go into more detail about here).
In terms of treatment, there is little evidence that supports either surgery or injections. But these are usually not the first line of treatment – and there are risks associated with these particular methods of treatment.
Most individuals with a disc herniation and back pain get better with both time and conservative treatment methods. In fact, research indicates that two thirds of people with disc herniations make a full recovery – meaning the discs do eventually retract. And EVERYBODY with a disc herniation and back pain can recover and overcome the pain with an active treatment approach and by incorporating healthy and sustainable pain management strategies.
As with any type of back pain, it’s important to remain active within your threshold. This means moving without aggravating your pain.
Muscles can be strengthened and the resilience and load tolerance of the back can be increased. Recent research has shown that it’s possible to strengthen the intervertebral discs themselves with exercise. For example, with activities such as resistance training as well as running.
And remember, movement is medicine! If there’s any type of miracle pill that exists – it’s exercise! The human brain and nervous system are pretty amazing, and able to adapt. With healthy sleep and physical activity habits, as well as the right coping strategies and mindset, we can learn to manage and overcome pain.
On that note, for guidance on your recovery journey – download the Reach Physio App for a three month programme that will assist you through the exercises that are right for you.
Click here to learn more.