Obesity and Degenerative Disc Disease

Being overweight, even by as few as 10 pounds, can burden your intervertebral discs as they work to help support your spine.

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Degenerative disc disease (DDD), which can affect any one of us as we age, can be especially problematic for people who are overweight by as few as 10 pounds. To understand why, take a step back and think about the structure and function of your spine.

body weight categoriesExtra body weight shifts the dynamics of how your spine absorbs and distributes forces when you are at rest or during movement. Photo Source: 123RF.com. Your spine is made to help carry your body's weight. It's designed to keep your weight balanced and evenly distributed. For example, your vertebrae graduate in size from small to large: the vertebrae in your neck are the smallest and largest in your lumbar spine, the low back. The vertebra are sized and shaped according to their function. For example, the 5 vertebral bodies in the lumbar spine are larger to support most of the body's weight.

Your intervertebral discs—the cushions in between your vertebrae—increase in size, too. They're thickest in the lumbar spine because they need to absorb and adapt to the most weight.

The spine has such an intricate design, one that hinges on all parts working together as they should. However, in degenerative disc disease, parts of your spine change and lose their ability to properly function. Intervertebral discs gradually become less capable of absorbing and cushioning your movements. Joints, such as the facet joints, may then change as they readjust to changes in the disc; they may not move as easily, making it harder for your body to carry and distribute weight.

Extra weight puts extra strain on the spine. If you have DDD and are overweight, then you're stressing and straining your vertebrae and discs even more. The extra weight could even accelerate the degenerative processes because the parts of your spine will have to work harder to carry the extra weight—and the harder they work, the faster they may wear out (degenerate).

A diagnosis of degenerative disc disease could be just the motivation you need to lose extra weight, become more physically active, stop smoking, and or make other lifestyle changes to benefit your spine and general health. Your physician or other healthcare provider can offer helpful suggestions about reducing your body weight and improving your overall health.

Updated on: 10/08/19
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Jason M. Highsmith, MD
Charleston Brain and Spine
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