Sperling Medical Group

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4 Ways to Take Charge and Prevent Arthritis in Your Spine

The Riddle of the Sphinx: “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?”

If you’re not familiar with the Riddle of the Sphinx, it was a trap posed by this mythical creature in order to devour travelers. If you couldn’t answer the riddle correctly, you became the Sphinx’s dinner. According to legend, Oedipus gave the correct answer, and the Sphinx promptly died.
The answer is, MAN. Early in life (“morning”) babies crawl on all fours. During the majority of one’s healthy years (“noon”) people walk upright on two legs. However, as old age sets in (“evening”) and arthritis bends the spine and cripples the knees, a bent-over elder adds a cane for support—essentially a third leg. If the Sphinx should re-emerge, now you know the answer.

Aging and arthritis

As far as we know, aging is inevitable. While much science is devoted to reversing the effects of age, there has not yet been a triumph over the many processes that gradually deteriorate the body. One of those processes is osteoarthritis, meaning the aging-related wear and tear on cartilage that protects and lubricates the motion of joints. As cartilage thins and wears away, bone starts rubbing against bone, creating painful friction and damage resulting in pain and inflammation. OUCH!

If I asked you to name five joints in your body, you might start with the obvious: knees, ankles, elbows, wrists, fingers, etc. You would probably not include the joints in your spine, which are called facet joints. These are the movable meeting-points between each of the backbones (vertebrae) that make up the spine. These meeting-points are called facet joints. Every day you bend and twist your upper body without realizing that you have many small facet joints that make your spine limber and flexible while at the same time limiting its range of motion.
As with all cartilage-lined joints, the facet joints are susceptible to age-related wear and tear, especially those in the lower back which absorbs much of the shock of walking, running, lifting, etc. Anyone who has experienced osteoarthritis in the lower spine knows how agonizing the pain can be.

Preventing arthritis of the spine

Aside from possible inherited vulnerability for osteoarthritis, much of the harm that occurs to facet joints is the product of lifestyle factors and how they combine with each other. Things that contribute to stress and strain on the joints, including the facet joints, include obesity, high blood-sugar levels (diabetes), lack of adequate physical exercise, and injury. The good news is, arthritis can be prevented and its progression can be slowed down. Here are four ways to take control and keep your facet joints in tiptop shape:

  1. Lose the extra pounds. Unnecessary weight equals unnecessary force on your joints, putting too much pressure on the cartilage that lines the bone surfaces where they meet to form a joint. This is as true for the spine as it is for knees and ankles. Just as important, fat itself is formed by a range of cell types connected with metabolic regulation and energy storage. Having too many fat cells (obesity) is a disorder that results in system-wide inflammation that not only leads to many disorders but also harms the composition of cartilage. Protect your cartilage by losing weight.
  2. Control blood sugar. Did you know that over half of people with diabetes also have arthritis? High blood sugar is significantly linked with molecular factors that stiffen cartilage, making it more brittle and less resilient when under the mechanical stress of joint motion. Diabetes is also associated with inflammatory processes in the body.
  3. Don’t be a couch potato. Make a commitment to get to the gym or exercise aerobically regularly. Vigorous exercise is good for your heart as well as your joints, and if you’re concerned about impact on aging joints, try swimming or stationary bike for low impact workouts. Remember to stretch as part of your warm-up and cool-down.
  4. Make safety a priority. While accidents can happen, especially when we’re stressed or anxious, slow down, practice mindfulness when you move, and make choices such as defensive driving and moderate alcohol use. A back injury can do a lot of harm to the small facet joints as well as the discs (cushions) between the vertebrae. It takes just a second to wreck joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles and nerves that may require many months of healing and physical therapy.

When it comes to arthritis of the spine—or any joint—it’s no fun to allow disability to gradually take over our freedom and well-being. Instead, we can take charge of making wise choices to invest in happier, healthier aging. And remember, if you experience any severe or ongoing back pain, especially in your lower back, don’t self-diagnose and self-treat. Consult your physician for a professional diagnosis.

If you don’t want to end up on “three legs,” remember that an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

Facet Pain