Don’t blame your bad discs – help them! 

This article was originally published in The Raider Patch: Magazine of the U.S. Marine Raider Association

If you’ve had a healthcare provider say your back pain is because of bulging or degenerated spinal discs, you’d expect them to tell you how to fix said discs, right?

Unfortunately, I bet many people in this situation have been told this is nothing that can be done. Disc replacement is a thing, but it’s nowhere near perfect yet for the lower back. So most doctors offer one type of solution: pain management. They provide pain drugs, injections, and sometimes even anti-depressants. Relief, yes, but not repair.

While there is no doubt that pain relief is important so that you can go about your life, it isn’t the only thing that can be done. Your discs are capable of more self-repair than most medical providers are taught. So if new discs aren’t an option (yet), what secret ability of your discs can you leverage to jumpstart the repair process? Enter the hydraulics of disc healing.

Disc Hydraulics 101

Spinal discs are shock absorbers of a hydrated, gel-like center surrounded by a tough outer shell of layered rings. When fully hydrated, the disc’s outer ring bears about 25% of the weight load, while the center supports 75%.

As gravity works to compress our upright spines all day long, water slowly seeps out of the discs. The process occurs faster with sitting or standing for extended periods (think traveling) or carrying extra weight (as in rucking or heavy yard work). When lying down at night, the discs absorb water and rehydrate.

This daily dehydration and nightly rehydration cycle is why most of us are about a quarter to a half inches shorter when we go to bed than when we wake up in the morning. 

Repeated disc injuries can reduce the disc’s absolute water capacity, and nighttime water re-absorption tends to become suboptimal over time. This is when problems can seem to develop out of the blue. A chronically dehydrated disc lowers the “ceiling” of the spinal spaces, putting more pressure on bones and potentially compressing nerve fibers – leading to back or leg pain, numbness and tingling, and the common medical diagnosis of sciatica.

Disc Maintenance

1. Get Moving

Sitting or standing in one position for too long will cause a slow seepage of disc fluid and stiffening of your spine. Conversely, motion is like lotion. Regular movement during the day creates the piston action that keeps discs hydrated. The discs will absorb what water is available.

2. Drink water

Give your discs the fluid they need to rehydrate. Aim to consume half your body weight in ounces per day. Sneak in a glass of water before each meal or coffee. Keep going for at least three weeks to notice changes.

3. Dedicate Time for Disc Rehydration

Just 15 minutes in a gravity-reduced posture can increase disc height (via fluid absorption) by 25%! And raising the “roof” by 25% can take considerable pressure off sensitive bones and nerve fibers. Try taking a break after work in one of the positions below (drink a glass of water beforehand for good measure). Add a mid-day break too, when you can. If you have some degree of pain caused by disc dehydration, you should start to feel some benefits in about three weeks.

Supine 90/90
Prone on elbows
Prone hip hinge

Should I get an inversion table?

Maybe. If you’ve determined that a near-daily rehydration routine is effective, but the ground positions discussed here don’t give substantial enough relief. Calibrate is the word to remember if you try inversion for the first time! Many people make the mistake of going full-tilt boogie upside down on their first inversion table ride. If you don’t throw up or get a headache, your ankles, hips, or back may be quite displeased for the rest of the day. 

A 45-degree angle (or half the way to being fully upside down) is all it takes to decompress the spinal discs by about 50% while avoiding overstretching muscles and joints and ensuring that any TBI or concussion-injured brains aren’t irritated by the sudden change in blood pressure.

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