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Your Amazing Spine and Self-Inflicted Harm

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Mark W. McFarland, DO

As a busy spine specialist, I diagnose and treat patients who have a variety of spine related issues.  I’m often asked if lifestyle or activities have anything to do with their spine issues.  The answer is yes!  In my practice, the major factors I observe which may cause harm to the patient AND which are controlled by the patient are:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Playing Sports

Obesity – The consequential effect of excess weight on the musculoskeletal system is extremely well-documented, but few Americans seem to care… and their reported problems with aching backs and joints keep increasing.  The spine is a boney structure that helps the body to bear its own weight while doing activities.  When there is too much weight, pain is often the result.  Sadly, most Americans would rather take medications or even have surgery than lose weight.

Smoking – What I said about obesity can be seconded about smoking.  Again, there are a myriad of studies that show smoking contributes to back and neck pain, failure to heal after spinal injury or spinal surgery, etc., but many folks just choose to continue to smoke, regardless of their pain.  If you have any kind of spinal condition that causes back or neck pain, or if you just have non-specific muscular back pain, the best thing that you can do for yourself is to quit smoking.   Period.

Alcohol – Drinking alcohol to excess is detrimental to the health of bones, including those in the spine.  Heavy drinkers can develop osteoporosis which is a condition that causes thinning and brittle bones. Excess alcohol intake interferes with how your body processes calcium, crucial for building and maintaining healthy bones, and can interfere with bone healing in the event of an injury, disease or surgery.  Many studies show that the consumption of alcohol worsens muscular and bone-related neck and back pain.

Playing sports – Choosing to participate in a sport that you love can be an extremely positive thing for most people.  However, many sports involve some risk to the spine and a few sports are high-risk, such as football, downhill skiing, wrestling and gymnastics.  Some sports are more dangerous to the spine than others.  I’d never tell someone not to participate in a sport just because of the risk; however, I’d tell them to be aware of the risks and mitigate them.  Make sure you are properly trained and in proper physical shape to participate, always wear the appropriate safety equipment and ALWAYS keep safety top of mind. 

In summary, if you are overweight, smoke and drink, you could greatly reduce the impact on your spine and the amount of pain you suffer, by simply losing weight, quitting smoking and reducing your alcohol intake.  If you play sports, be smart about doing so.  If you choose to participate in extreme activities, I can’t offer you much in the way of advice; but I will be available for a consult, should you suffer an injury to your spine.

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