We all experience aging. It is a part of the human condition. As children, living in the ideal of eternal youth, we never thought about aging, but as we grow older, we often complain about one thing: aching bones. Why exactly?
For backaches, there is an answer: intervertebral disc degeneration. To understand what this is, and why it is such a common cause of suffering during the aging process, let’s take a look at the human spine itself.
Our spines contain spinal nerves that provide sensory and motor function to our arms and legs. Between each vertebrae is a cushion made of protein (called fibrocartilage) with a tough, yet flexible, outer portion of collagen (called the annulus fibrosus) and a squishy inner core (called the nucleus pulposus) that is filled with a natural “mucoprotein gel.” These intervertebral discs function marvelously as shock absorbers.
As we age, this functional squishiness becomes more and more dehydrated, impairing the disc’s effectiveness to absorb shock. The nerves inside get pinched and knocked around. These are the unfortunate mechanics of a backache. Wear and tear are inevitable as life progresses. Certain lifestyles and professions keep us moving and on our feet. Any waiter or food service professionals knows this all too well.
Being sedentary, or seated for long intervals of time, can also affect low back pain. Long haul truckers, delivery personnel, and remote workers seated in their home office during COVID lockdowns have spoken of an increase in low back pain and discomfort.
What else can science tell us about intervertebral disc degeneration? Genetics play an important role. Certain gene variants have been studied in intervertebral disc disease. A 2016 study states that “low back pain (LBP) is a major cause of disability and imposes huge economic burdens on human society worldwide.”
These variations in gene expression, according to a separate study, “play a role in triggering an immune response when the body detects a foreign invader, such as a virus. It is thought that these gene variants can lead to an immune response that results in inflammation and water loss (dehydration) of the discs, which causes their degeneration.”
Regular exercise, proper rest, and avoiding overstrain and trauma are important preventative measures against back pain caused by inactivity. As Marcus Tullius Cicero said, “Let moderation be your guide.”