Self-Care for Spinal and Disc Problems

Scientific Article of Ngo Minh Ly, M.D., PhD. Head of Spine Ward A, Hospital for Traumatology and Orthopaedics, Ho Chi Minh City
Understanding the structure of a healthy spine.
Knowledge of how a healthy spine moves can prevent back injury. A healthy spine supports the body and allows free movement, thanks to the three natural curvatures that help balance the body. Strong and flexible back muscles support the spine and keep curves level. The spine can bend and move thanks to intervertebral discs located between the two vertebral bodies. Discs act as shock absorbers between vertebrae and reduce shock during movement.
Maintaining the physiological curves of the spine is vital because the spine supports most of the body weight and is the part that is most active.
The spine is composed of vertebrae and discs that are arranged in three S-shaped natural curves. This special arrangement helps to keep balance during movement and supports the body while lying, sitting, standing or moving.  Proper distribution of body weight on the spine would reduces injury.
Strong and flexible back muscles help maintain the three natural curves by keeping a special arrangement of vertebrae and discs that helps support the upper body. In addition, strong and flexible muscles in the abdomen, hip, thigh and elsewhere reduce pressure on the spine during movement.
Of the three natural curves, the Lumbar curve does the hardest work of the spine by helping to support the heaviest part of the body and by moving most. Maintaining natural curves of the spine helps prevent injury to vertebrae, discs and other parts of the spine.
Understanding the structure of an unhealthy spine.
An unhealthy spine usually results from bad habits such as “Harmful postures”. Examples of bad postures include improper standing, sitting, lying or moving that increase pressure on the spine and disc and cause back pain. Over time, bad postures can cause rapid loss in the ability to absorbe shock to the spine and can result in pain and disc problems. Bad postures that are not corrected produce repeated injury and can cause serious spinal damage.
Bad postures, sooner or later, would damage our back causing pain due to loss of natural spine curvature. For example, excessive bending increases pressure on the annulus fibrosus and excessive backward bending of the spine could overloads and inflames joints. Back muscles can cramp as the spine is supported, leading to increased pain.
Excessive movement or injury can also lead to various problems in the spine and discs. The most common problem occurs when discs are torn, blistered or broken, causing loss of pressure absorption capacity and shock resistance capacity. In such event, the rest of the spine weakens, causing pain, stiffness, and other symptoms.
Discs degenerate over time, but bad postures accelerate degeneration. When discs narrow and dry, vertebrae lie closely together, thus there is increased likelihood that bone spurs would narrow the intervertabral foramina and block nerve roots in the spine.
Fortunately, serious spinal problems can be prevented or even repaired through changing living habits and promoting a healthy spine.
Good mechanical body movements
Good mechanical body movements would retain the natural curves of the spine and help it move like a smoothly operating machine.  Maintaining the three natural curves of the spine throughout the day minimizes pressure on the spine and helps to prevent back pain and injury. Bad mechanical body movement increases pressure on the spine and causes spinal injuries. 
During sleep, standing or moving, the spine constantly bears body weight and due to such work, spinal problems may occur. Sometimes the spine has to work overtime. Pressure in the disc triples as the body changed from prone position to sitting position. Thus, Bad mechanical movement such as bending increases unnecessary pressure on the spine, while proper mechanical movement helps minimize pressure on the spine.
Good mechanical movement relates not only to sitting, standing or moving but also to proper sleeping position and appropriate mattress firmness. This can significantly contribute to maintaining and protecting the natural curves of the spine.
By sleeping, sitting or moving properly, weight is well balanced on the spine. Spinal health may also be improved by reducing the time spent in positions that increase pressure on the spine.
Proper mechanical movements:
  • When sleeping:
When lying on your back or sideways, your back or body must be close to the mattress surface. If you lie on your back, you should put a pillow under your knees to keep your body well curved. If you lie sideways, you should bend both knees to reduce pressure on your back.
It is very important to choose a mattress with appropriate firmness that supports the entire body weight while helping to maintain and protect the natural curves of the spine.
  • When standing:
If you have to stand for an extened period of time, you should rest one leg on an elevated surface to reduce pressure on the spine and maintain the three natural curves of the spine. If necessary, slightly bend the knees. Wear a back brace and low-heel shoes to reduce shock to the body and keep the spine correctly positioned.
  • When sitting:
Maintain the three natural curves of your spine by using chairs with back support. A towel or small pillow placed in the belt area will help support the Lumbar curve. When driving, adjust the seat to keep the level of your knees and bottom level.
  • When turning sideways or bending:
Turning sideways and bending through the use of your groin and knees can help maintain the three natural curves of the spine. Let your legs do most of the work when carrying heavy objects.  Stand near objects to minimize lifting weight.
  • When turning:
You should imagine that your body is turning from the shoulder to the bottom and turn with your legs, not your back.  Align your legs in accordance with the turning direction and jump around the turning point so as to maintain your three natural spinal curves.
  • When lifting objects:
You should stand near items that need to be lifted and use lifting tools if necessary.  Flex your abdominal muscles to support back muscles and use your arms and legs to do most of the work. Use long tools to lift  objects and avoid jumping while lifting.