The spine is the backbone of human function. It allows us to stand upright, supports our weight, and enables movement. It also protects the spinal cord, which controls the body. So what can we do to guard it? Dr. Marc Arginteanu, chief of neurosurgery at Englewood Health, shared his advice.
It seems everyone complains about back pain. For those who seek help, what do you see most often?
Dr. Arginteanu: The most common issue in younger, more active people is a herniated disc in the lower back or neck, which can cause pain to run down the leg or arm. In older people, the most common issue is stenosis—pinching of the nerves. It can lead to sciatica and neurogenic claudication (inflammation of the nerves stemming from the spinal cord), limiting walking. It can also cause myelopathy, weakness in the arms and legs.
How can I avoid aches and pains in my back?
Dr. Arginteanu: First, maintain a healthy weight. Fat in males tends to be on the belly, which pulls them forward, putting stress on the spine. Second, don’t smoke. Smoking decreases the oxygen that goes to the spinal discs. Third, exercise regularly, staying active 3–5 times a week. Those who do heavy lifting at work should also see if their employers offer a “back class” demonstrating techniques to prevent injury. And be mindful. Many injuries result from motor vehicle accidents and whiplash, falls down the stairs, or lack of adequate training for seasonal activities.
With the winter weather and holidays here, what should we be aware of?
Dr. Arginteanu: When the holidays and cold weather roll around, we tend to eat more, exercise less, and rush too often. Weight puts stress on the spine, so make healthy diet choices and plan to exercise. Leave yourself extra time to travel and don’t speed if you’re late to a get-together. Wear appropriate footwear and be careful not to slip on ice. If you fall backward, tuck your chin and keep your shoulders, neck, and head off the ground. And when moving heavy gifts or boxes of decorations, lift by bending your knees.
What are the warning signs that a person should seek help?
Dr. Arginteanu: Pain is usually the body’s sign that things aren’t right. But certain conditions like myelopathy can be painless. Progressive weakness or numbness of the arms or legs can indicate a spinal problem—even without spinal pain. Neurogenic claudication can also be painless, but if you have it you may find that you’re able to walk less and less, or experience cramping or weakness in the legs when you do.
Posted December 2018
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