People who are proactive about their health, pay attention to their spine health.
The good news is that we’re living longer. The problem is that we don’t know how to live longer. Thanks to that added lifespan, we’re so productive and so busy. But many of us can’t be bothered with details like managing the aging process. Maybe we just assume medical technology will cure whatever comes along. I hope it’s not true, but some people indeed act that way. I hope that most of us simply do not know where to start.
Before I continue, let me say that my opinions are formed by nearly 30 years as a neurosurgeon at my practice in Beverly Hills, CA. However, you should always consult your doctor about courses of action that may have an impact on your wellness. That being said, you won’t find many physicians discussing spine health as a gateway for better aging management.
Why do I think this way? Aging exerts stress on the body. That’s a given fact. The problem is the way we augment the stress of aging. What I’m talking about are the poor lifestyle choices we make along the way. The really bad habits we pick up that tends to erode the state of our wellness. Consider also that as we age, one of the first things to go is our musculoskeletal system: not just the bones, but the muscles that support them, and everything else that’s attached. The spine is the keel of that system. Damage the spine, the body ceases to function properly. Damage it sufficiently enough, and the body withers.
Many years ago, I had a neighbor who was about 65 years old. The guy was on the verge of retirement, but he moved like a man who might have been much older. He talked as though he was looking forward to retirement, but everything he wanted to do ended with “but.” He and his wife were looking forward to traveling. They shared a passion for golf and tennis; grandchildren were finally coming into the family picture. BUT… his spine was a painful mess.
I was a medical student at the time, so I never examined him, but I had guessed he had at least one or two herniated discs in both his neck and lower back. The pain level was so high that getting in and out of his car became difficult. Eventually, he had spine surgery. It turned out that my guesses were pretty good: three-level fusion in the neck, 2-level in the lower back. But recovery was slow, also painful, and he and his wife (as far as I know) never managed to take all those trips they dreamed about.
Fast forward about 35 years, I have patients who are 65 years old, retired from one career, and ready to start a new one. The only thing that prevents them from engaging their new dreams is a lifetime of negligence that has worn down their body. The body, after all, is a machine. Steady, consistent maintenance is required to optimize physical functionality. I believe that if we focus more on what our spine needs, we can accomplish most of the wellness goals we want.
I have found FOUR COMMON TRAITS of the genuinely proactive patient; four lifestyle secrets that help them gain better spine health that allows them to make the most of their extended lifespan:
First – they’re active. Yes, they exercise, but none of the ones I’m thinking of are at the level of an Arnold Schwarzenegger. Many of my patients are athletic, but even in these cases, their exercise regimen focuses on strengthening core body muscle, which helps maintain the structural integrity of the spine. Weakened core body muscle exposes you to a higher risk for muscle strain in the lower back and neck. Don’t work out to work your body; exercise to protect it. Just 2-3 minutes of daily planking (a simple exercise where you hold your body rigid in the push-up position) is a great way to start. I have patients who hold that position for 6-8 minutes per day.
Second – they live lean. Notice how I’m not using the word “diet.” People who are ready to engage a full active life, eat what their bodies need, not what their mind craves. They control impulses for sugary and salty snacks. Many of my proactive patients eat only meals that they prepare for themselves. Home cooking is one way to assert full control over your nutritional needs. They still enjoy an occasional burger at their favorite drive-thru, but they do so moderately with a rational approach to daily intake. And all of them – without exception – drink plenty of water. The average adult should drink about eight 8-ounce glasses per day (about equal to 2 liters, or half a gallon). Professional nutritionists call this the 8×8 rule. It’s a good one to keep.
Third – they pay attention to their posture. Here’s where trained ballet dancers have the edge over many of us: a perfect posture. But you don’t need hours of ballet training to gain better posture. Here’s a daily drill that a classically trained ballet dancer shared with me. Many of his pointers ought to sound familiar; our mothers tried to teach these to us so long ago. Start by planting your feet on the ground, heels about a foot apart. Then imagine a string attached to the top of your head and stretching into the sky. Hold your shoulders down and keep them from curving forward. Resist the urge to bend the shoulders too far back as well. Now, keep the angle of your jaw parallel to the ground as you isolate your rib cage from bulging out. Flatten your stomach as much as is comfortable, and let that string elongate your spine. Hold this position for one to two minutes per day; build up to four or five minutes per day or longer. In a few months, your natural posture will transform. You may even begin to walk with this posture. And your spine will be far better from it.
Fourth – they listen to their body and talk to their doctors. I hope it’s not too simplistic to suggest that you treat pain as you would the engine warning light on your car’s dashboard. But it is a rational approach to good aging management. Any pain persisting beyond two days without diminishing (especially if it increases), is a sign that you really need to pay close attention. See a doctor as soon as possible. The dull ache in your neck or lower back that sticks around for more than three months may be medically considered chronic. It’s a good idea to get this checked out with an x-ray or even a CT scan to make sure. If you still haven’t seen your doctor and the pain is accompanied by numbness or tingling in the extremities, imagine that engine warning light is blinking furiously with a bell clanging away in the background. Waiting to see your doctor about chronic pain in either your neck or your lower back is simply asking for complication. In a future post, I’ll share some before and after X-rays of a patient who lived with chronic neck pain for about twenty years and ended up with a 4-level cervical fusion.
Those are the FOUR SECRETS that proactive people have for better aging. They seem simple enough with no grand prognostications other than the desire to live life to the fullest. My work as a neurosurgeon is more than just surgery. I assess my patient’s entire state of health, starting with looking at how your body is handling the stress of aging. These four “secrets” are a package deal too: adopt one with a mind toward taking them all. One more secret: I have had great success using them for myself, and I use them regularly as a way to prepare my patients for future surgery and to live better always.