How to Keep Your Intervertebral Discs Healthy

1
Overview of the Spinal Column

Graphic depiction of a human spine and ribs in the body.
Human spine and posture. Mads Abildgaard/Vetta/Getty Images

The spinal column consists of 26 movable bones (31 bones in all), called vertebrae. The vertebral bones are stacked on top of one another. The intervertebral disc is a cushioning substance, that is located between adjacent bones.

The Vertebral Bones and their Purposes

The vertebral bones are small and round in the front, which is an area called the vertebral body. In the back is a bony ring from which protrusions extend and arches and canals are formed. Each of these structures has one or more purpose. They are:

  • To stabilize the spine as a column (facet joint).
  • To provide a place for the connective tissue and muscles of the back to attach (spinous and transverse processes).
  • To provide a tunnel for the spinal cord to pass through (vertebral arch, neural arch or vertebral foramen).
  • To provide a space where nerves exit the spinal cord and branch out to all areas of the body (intervertebral foramen).

2
The Structure of the Intervertebral Disc

Intervertebral Disc
Intervertebral Disc. BSIP/UIG/Collection:Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The intervertebral disk is a little cushion that sits between the pairs of vertebrae.

Design of the spine allows it to move into many directions: Flexion (bending,) extension (arching), tilting and rotation (twisting.)  To produce these motions, strong forces act upon and influence the column.  The intervertebral disc provides shock absorption during motion, protecting the vertebrae and spinal cord from injury and/or trauma.

Related: Traction Spurs

How does the Disc Do This?

On the outside strong fibers are woven together to form an area called the annulus fibrosis. The annulus fibrosis contains and protects a softer, more squishy substance in the middle called the nucleus pulposus. The nucleus pulposis is responsible for yielding and giving during spinal movement. In this way, the disc acts as a shock absorber.

3
Mechanics of the Intervertebral Disk

Woman laying on wooden floor in supine position, head resting on book
Supine Position - Good for your Discs. Getty Images/Tony Hutchings

The nucleus pulposus can be visualized as a soft, squishy ball located right in the center of the disc. According to I.A. Kapandji in his book, Physiology of the Joints,  the disc has the ability to swivel in all directions. This swiveling action alters the tilt and rotation of the vertebra above and below, which, in turn, allows for and buffers the effects of motion on the spine. The swiveling of discs occurs in response to the direction in which the spine is moving.

The nucleus pulposus is made mostly of water. Water can move in and out by means of small pores, which act as byways between the bone of the nearby vertebra and the disc. Positions that load the spine, (in particular, sitting and standing) pushes water out of the disc. Lying down on your back (called the supine position) facilitates water coming back into the disc.

With aging, discs tend to lose water which can lead to disc degeneration.

Unlike the muscles and organs of our bodies, the intervertebral disc has no blood supply. This means that for a disc to receive necessary nutrition (and for wastes to be carried away), it must rely on the flow of water, as well as other mechanical means, to stay healthy.

4
Care and Feeding of the Intervertebral Disc

Prone press up exercise
Prone press up exercise. Russell Sadur / Getty Images

Some tips for taking care of your intervertebral discs include:

  • Improving your posture which may include exercising and changing positions frequently while at work.
  • Using good body mechanics when lifting heavy objects.
  • Sleeping on a firm, supportive mattress.
  • Quitting smoking (or don't start.)
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Eating nutritiously.
  • Drinking a lot of water.
  • Drinking alcohol only moderately.

Source:

Kapandji, I. The Physiology of the Joints Vol. 3 The Trunk and the Vertebral Column 2d ed. (Churchill Livingstone), pp. 30-31.

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