Lower Back Pain and How Smoking plays a role

As people age, it's common to hear complaints of lower back pain, but age is not necessarily the main cause. Read on for ten healthy tips about this condition that you may not know (and should).

  • Lower back pain can be a Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease. It is not a disease. Doctors use the phrase to describe the normal spine changes that take place as we age.
  • How common is it? The Australian Bureau of Statistics said that the 2014-2015 National Health Survey showed that approximately 3.7 million Australians have back problems. That means 16% of the general population suffers back pain. The National Health Survey estimated further that 70-90% of people suffer from lower back pain at some point during their lives. Back pain is most common in people age 65-79, with 28% suffering back pain in this age range.

 

So, who is the most susceptible?

Doctors have found that cigarette smokers are more likely to develop degenerative disc disease than non-smokers. So that's another reason to quit smoking (or not to start in the first place). People who do heavy-lifting for work, and obese people also are likely to develop degenerative disc disease. Of course, a traumatic injury which causes a herniated disc can also put degeneration in motion.

If you've thought about quitting smoking, download our "Checklist That You Are Ready to Quit Smoking" for more insight.

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What do we know about degenerative disc disease?

  • About spinal discs. Discs are the soft structures between each vertebrae (bones) in the spine. Healthy discs are squeezable with a soft gel center and a hard outer, protective, shell. Discs cushion bones and absorb shock as the spine stretches, bends, and twists. 
  • What causes disc break down. As we age, we lose disc fluid. As the gel thins, the discs become flatter and they don't absorb shock as well. A body may also create tiny bony growths on the spine called bone spurs. These bone spurs can put pressure on the nerves which will cause pain and disrupt nerve function.
  • Spinal disc breakdown and other diseases. Osteoarthritis is a breaking down of the cartilage that cushions joints. A disc segment may swell or a disc may break open. Docs call these herniated discs. As the spine ages, the open spaces in the spine that holds the spinal cord start to narrow. Docs call this narrowing spinal stenosis. All these conditions result in pressure on the spinal cord and the related nerves which, in turn, causes the pain. The pressure may also interfere with nerve function.
  • How discs lose fluid. Disc fluid loss can happen if the disc's gel oozes out of the center through cracks or tears in the outer shell. Cracks in the shell can cause herniated discs, or a complete rupture, or the disc may shatter into pieces.
  • How doctors diagnose degenerative disc disease. A physician will review medical history, including any accidents or falls, and he will test the range of motion and pain sensitivity to movement. He will check for nerve damage or reflex changes. He will ask about numbness, tingling, or weakness in the pain area. He will examine the patient to rule out fractures, tumors, and bacterial infection.
  • Typical treatments. The physician may order something as simple as anti-inflammatory drugs to alleviate pain and reduce swelling. He also may order heat therapy. If he finds osteoarthritis or a herniated disk or spinal stenosis, he may order physical therapy or exercises that stretch the back. If he finds a shattered disc, the doctor may recommend surgery to remove the disc. When that happens, the doctor may fuse the bone to protect the spinal cord. Rarely, a surgeon may implant an artificial disc to take the place of the damaged disc.
  • Modify daily activity. Many patients find significant relief just by modifying daily activity: no heavy-lifting, no sports that involve a twisting motion or spinal rotation (think football, golf, basketball, tennis). Changing sleep positions can eliminate pressure on the spine. Walking, swimming, or bike riding relieve pressure on discs while improving general health. These low-impact aerobic exercises improve oxygen flow throughout the body and keep the blood flowing to the spine. Exercises that stretch the hamstrings are important because tight muscles down the backs of thighs increase pressure on the back and worsen degenerative disc pain.