Sperling Medical Group

reading & research

Time to Start Thinking About Your Back—and Taking Care of It

Each of us has a lot of body parts we rarely think about. Especially if they aren’t causing any problems or pain. On the other hand, there are plenty of attention-getters such as injury, deterioration and disease that force us to focus on an area we may not have thought about for years.

When’s the last time you thought about your back? If you’re a body builder, you know about back muscles like the trapezius (traps), latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids and others because you want to develop them. If you’re under a lot of pressure at work, you may carry so much tension in your shoulder area that your upper back screams at you at the end of the day. If you do a lot of heavy lifting on the job, a pulled muscle or herniated disc can quickly immobilize you and have you downing over-the-counter pain/inflammation relievers. Suddenly, you can’t ignore your back even if you want to!

Osteoarthritis of the spine

Back injuries cause sensations that range from annoying to excruciating. With proper care, however, time is on your side since most injuries will eventually heal. On the other hand, time can also be a back’s worst enemy, as in the case of osteoarthritis of the spine, or facet joint arthritis. This is a chronic condition that usually results from wear and tear as years pass by. You’re probably familiar with knee arthritis, but did you ever think your spine could suffer that same deterioration of cartilage that frequently occurs to knees as they age?

It’s true. Your spine is composed of separate bones called vertebrae that are stacked in a column. There are small points of contact between each upper and lower vertebra, and these are your facet joints. Similar to the large knee joint, there is a cartilage pad on each contact point, and a special lubricant. These components allow your spine to bend and twist smoothly, cushion the spine against shock, and preserve the small openings through which branching nerves from the spinal cord pass. Because the facet joints keep your spine and nerves pain free, you don’t have to think about your back.

Facet joint arthritis risk factors

Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, cartilage is a non-renewable resource that may not be able to keep up with the demands placed on it. If it wears away, something can occur that causes pain signals firing up to the brain. Without cartilage, spinal movement causes the bony points of contact to rub bone against bone. To compensate, the small bones may develop bone spurs at the contact point. While they are not necessarily painful, they can compress the nerves located there, causing numbness, tingling, weakness and outright agony.
Not everyone will fall victim to facet joint arthritis, but there are definite risk factors that make some individuals more likely to get this irreversible condition:

  • Obesity/overweight – not only causes mechanical stress but also changes body chemistry in a way that promotes inflammation
  • Poor posture – causes mechanical stress
  • Diabetes – changes body chemistry in a way that makes cartilage stiffer; can also trigger inflammation that speeds cartilage loss
  • Sedentary lifestyle – promotes joint deterioration through lack of use, lubrication, and weaker muscles that support the back
  • Back injury – according to the Arthritis Foundation, an injured joint is 7 times more likely to develop osteoarthritis

An ounce of prevention…

Fortunately, you can help prevent facet joint arthritis by upping your commitment to healthy choices. In particular, the following practices can minimize the above risk factors if done on a regular basis.

  1. Lose extra pounds in order to reduce strain on your spine. While nutrition and diet play a role, so does exercise, and I’ll return to that in a minute. Meanwhile, restoring healthy body chemistry by shedding weight is also an investment in preventing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and reducing inflammation that is a precursor to cancer.
  2. Preventing diabetes is also connected with diet and weight loss, especially if it runs in your family.
  3. Exercise offers so many benefits in addition to keeping your spine limber and strengthening your back and core muscles. When integrated with noninflammatory diets like the Mediterranean or DASH diet, it reduces inflammation, strengthens your cardiovascular system, builds muscle, helps you sleep better, improves posture and balance to reduce risk of physical injury to the body, and the list goes on. Get off the couch and get moving!
  4. Protect your back. If you do heavy lifting as part of your workday, use proper lifting technique (not bending over!). If your exercise involves athletics, use proper padding and other gear.

Most importantly, become aware of your back and how you use it when you’re sitting, standing, walking, lifting, twisting, or any other position or movement. It’s an incredibly central part of your anatomy’s architecture, and it protects your spinal cord so your nervous system can communicate with your entire body.

Start thinking more often about your back, and your back will serve you well throughout your life.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you have health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.

Facet Pain