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Much like a camping tent, the body doesn’t stand up by itself, it needs structure. That would be the spine, in this case. A complex organization of bones, cartilage, ligaments, nervous tissue, and muscle, the spine keeps the body upright. It also protects the spinal cord, which is part of the central nervous system that joins the brain to the rest of the body, creating an electrical connection that enables things like breathing, digestive, bladder and sexual function, sensation, and movement. Without a strong, healthy spine, the body simply doesn’t work.
As neurologist Florian P. Thomas, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience Institute at Hackensack University Medical Center and at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, reportedly said, it is vital to protect the spine because of how important it is.
A recent estimate showed that the annual incidence of spinal cord injury is approximately 54 cases per one million people in the U.S., or about 17,730 new cases each year. According to Statista, the estimated lifetime cost of a patient who is 25 years old and suffering from paraplegia in the U.S. was around $2.5 million as of 2019.
Per Dr. Thomas, we can all optimize our spine health by:
Although it’s very rare to endure a spinal cord injury, most people at some point will experience neck or back pain as a result of spinal strain or instability. One of the best remedies against this is exercise, but strength training in particular. “One of the biggest sources of back pain is lack of trunk strength, whether it’s your glutes, your abdominal muscles, or your back muscles. So exercising the trunk is really important,” Dr. Thomas said. He added that maintaining strength is essential throughout life, especially since many older people eventually develop frailty.
About 31% of spinal cord injuries occur because of a fall, especially for older people. You can prevent spine-threatening falls by cleaning and in some cases modifying your home. Dr. Thomas recommended installing night lights so you don’t trip over things like area rugs, pets, and children’s toys in the middle of the night. Because bathrooms are especially hazardous, you might consider installing grab bars in your shower and next to your toilet.
Riding a motorcycle. Downhill skiing. Horseback riding. Snowmobiling. Gymnastics. Diving. These are just a few of the many activities that can cause spinal cord injuries. As Dr. Thomas said, “Every person needs to make their own risk assessment and decide for themselves what compromises they’re willing to make to live in the world.”
Ok, not everyone wants to live life in fear. So if you’re going to take the chance, wearing a helmet during risky recreational activities like riding a bike can mitigate damage from spinal cord injuries. “Unfortunately, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury often go hand in hand,” Dr. Thomas said. “When they’re combined, a person who might have lived well despite a spinal cord injury may lack the cognitive ability to do so.”
As aforementioned, a common cause of injuries to the spine and spinal cord is falls for older adults. A common cause of falls is medication — in particular, medications that cause drowsiness, dizziness, or brain fog, like sleep aids, anxiety medications, opioids, or antihistamines.
Obesity can be another major source of spine pain. “It changes your body mechanics because there’s more weight that hangs on your muscles, bones, and ligaments,” Dr. Thomas explained. “If you have a large gut, especially, it moves your center of gravity forward, and that’s unhealthy for your spine.”
Smoking is bad for your health, that’s no surprise, but you probably never realized that it’s bad for your spine. “Although we’re not quite sure why, there’s increasing evidence that back pain is more common in smokers,” Dr. Thomas said.