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Am I at Risk for a Herniated Disc?

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Updated August 29, 2010

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Question: Am I at Risk for a Herniated Disc?
Answer:

Disc herniation affects men between the ages of 30 and 50 the most, especially men with physical occupations. Men are almost one and a half times more likely to herniate a disc than women. Disc herniation occurs less frequently in older people. This is because as we age, discs dry out. Older people tend to get degenerating discs and discogenic pain, rather than herniated disc.

Causes of Herniated Disc

The main causes of a herniated disc are disc degeneration, loading and/or compression of the spine when it’s bent forward, trauma, including a lot of microtrauma over time, and injury.

Genetics may contribute to the development of a herniated disc. If you are tall, for example, your risk is higher. Genetic factors that increase the risk for this injury may also affect the disc and surrounding structures directly. A decade-long study comparing spines of twins found that genes contributed more to disc degeneration than did occupational or leisure activities usually associated with spinal loading. As mentioned above, spinal loading is a known cause of herniation.

Just the same, your occupation and lifestyle may contribute to your risk for a herniation. Does your job require bending or twisting of the spine? Do you lift a lot of heavy objects or experience strong vibration through your body (jackhammer operator, for example)? If so, you may be tempting fate. If you are sedentary, the degree of compression you put on your spine on a daily basis is increased, especially if you don’t sit upright. And if you take impact into your spine through your head, for example when you dive off a diving board, you load the spine from the top, another contributory factor for herniated disc.

Lifestyle factors directly under your control include smoking and diet. If you smoke or don’t eat nutritiously, your risk is higher. Being overweight increases your risk, because the extra weight imposes microtrauma on the disc and nearby tissues.

Pregnancy, which, for the purposes of disc health is similar to being overweight, also increases the risk. Being pregnant affects the spine and discs in the same way as carrying extra body fat in the abdomen. It increases microtrauma to the spine, a known cause of herniated disc.

The presence of other back problems may also make you more vulnerable to a herniated disc. Specifically, lumbar spinal stenosis, arthritis, ankloysing spondylitis, fused vertebrae and malformation may predispose you to a herniated disc.

Sources:

MD Consult. Herniated Intervertebral Disk. Elsivier. July 2010. Accessed August 2010. http://www.mdconsult.com/das/pdxmd/body/215814010-2/1040215818?type=med&eid=9-u1.0-_1_mt_1014932&printing=true#Contributors

Michele C. Battié, PhD., et. al. The Twin Spine Study: Contributios to a changing view of disc degeneration. Spine Journal. Volume 9, Issue 1, Pages 47-59 (January 2009) Accessed: Aug 2010 http://www.thespinejournalonline.com/article/S1529-9430%2808%2901440-X/abstract

Vaccaro, A. Spine: Core Knowledge in Orthopaedics. Elsevier Mosby. Philadelphia. 2005.

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