Back: Deterioration is natural, but it can be slowed

Mar. 01, 2009
By Sam McManis
The Sacramento Bee

The problem, arguably, began when we started walking upright. Our spines just aren’t constructed to take such vertical force. Something’s got to give and, most often, it’s a disc, a muscle, a nerve.

Back pain, elusive to diagnosis and tricky to treat, affects 80 percent of the U.S. population at some point in life, according to the North America Spine Society. Cost of treatment has exceeded $86 billion per year, a rise of 65 percent in a decade, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

And yet pain alleviation is hard to come by. More people than ever are seeking back-pain relief, through a combination of physical therapy, opioids and other pain-management techniques or surgery. U.S. doctors perform 1.2 million spinal operations yearly, the highest among developed nations.

Maybe, it has been posited, we will always battle back pain. It’s the way we were built.

“If you believe that we once were quadrupeds, then it makes sense why the back tends to deteriorate,” says Dr. Brian Davis, a UC Davis Medical Center physician specializing in spine and musculoskeletal disorders. “There’s no question that the mechanical stuff that we put our back through is probably not what we were truly designed for. The people who believe in evolution will agree with that. The people who believe in creationism will say, ‘That’s a bunch of baloney.’ “

Speaking to the evolution crowd, Davis explained.

“When we were walking on all fours, if you believe that, we didn’t put pressure on those small parts of the back at all,” he says. “The pressure was on the arms. Then, as we stood up, we’re meant to put most of the pressure on the front parts of the bones in the discs, which tend to fall apart with aging. And as we go more backward into what we call extension, we’re putting more pressure on even those small joints. They can’t tolerate it.” More…