Wednesday, 18 December 2013 14:57

Too young for a slipped disc?

Slipped or herniated discs in the lumbar spine are perhaps more associated with the “middle aged” rather than the young, but be warned! The disc refers to the intervertebral discs that lie between each vertebra of the spine. They join the spinal bodies together and enable spinal movement, but very importantly they act as shock absorbers to protect the spine and the spinal column. As we walk, sit, bend, jump or move in any way the muscles throughout our body pull on the spine creating postural changes. This is all very natural for the body and as long as we do not subject the body to too much direct force it will cope with it very well. The stronger and more flexible we are the more of this direct pressure the body can cope with.

It is this strength and flexibility (or lack of it) that is causing real problems in huge numbers with younger people today. Too much pressure and the disc will move or become herniated (bulging to one side) and this can put pressure on the spinal nerves, resulting in a lot of pain, time off work and possibly surgery. You see the way we work and our children play has changed over the last 20 years so the likelihood of our children going straight from college or university into office based work is very likely, over 70% likely in fact. Meaning that working life for many will start without any physically demanding jobs or indeed activity to develop crucial core strength to protect the spine and discs. Sitting down and leaning forward to work on a computer without this strength is like pulling the pin on a hand grenade, it will go off eventually causing the disc to “slip”. Add extra body weight to lack of strength and the force placed on the lower back in multiplied and in turn the likelihood of serious back problems increases.

Only ten years ago the number of people in their twenties or early thirties with slipped discs was very rare, we had only 2 cases in 300 assessments between 2002 and 2005. This number increased to 32 cases in 300 assessments between January 2010 and July 2013.

So what can we do about it? Increasing the balanced strength of the abdomen and the lower back (core strength) is crucial, particularly as the body is growing through teenage years and then maintaining that strength through early adult life is crucial. This sets the body up to cope with the demands that will placed on it. This will also increase awareness of what the body needs and exercising generally will help to keep body weight at the right levels.        But we also need more help from employers to ensure the working environment and equipment we are asking staff to use is suitable for them. This does not mean it is technically legal according to the guidelines and regulations (DSE Regulations) but it is suitable for them individually, their body size and the tasks they are being asked to do. Provide them with information and training on how to look after their backs and assess their workstations regularly so that they recognise that the way they sit and work is very important.

Not only employers but also schools and colleges need to do their bit as well. We need schools to educate children on these dangers and the importance of good posture and core strength. They recognise the importance of leaving school with good computer knowledge so how to use computers safely must be part of that. It would also help if schools stopped using the small plastic chairs in classrooms and purchase better seating for children. The next generation of employers may then start to naturally recognise that what we sit on all day and how we work is very important.


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