In life, there are many places we (particularly males) don’t want the dreaded word…’ shrinkage’ to show up. Not on the tip of an eraser doing homework or our taxes, not in the stock market or on our bank statements, not the favorite sweater or pair of pants in the laundry, not in our strength or our memory, and definitely not in our…spine. Although some of the men out there may be tempted to rearrange the letters in the word ‘spine’ to call attention to another shrinkable appendage that left Costanza with an unforgettable TV moment, in truth, there is not a single other place in the body where a loss of length does more damage than in the spinal column and posture.
The human spine was intelligently designed with two major responsibilities. First and foremost its job is to keep us upright and allow us to walk, run, climb, or stand on two healthy lower limbs. The second purpose of the spine is seemingly simple on the surface but intrinsically complex at its core and that is above all, protection. It literally is a fortress or suit of armor around the spinal cord which can be referred to as the lifeline of the body. As a matter of fact, the brain, spinal cord, and nerve roots are the only structures in the body completely surrounded by bone as a result of their importance in every single possible physiological role that can occur in the body. From growth to repair, from healing to adaptation, from hormone regulation to detoxification and so many more. And it is for this reason that this second fundamental function is considerably more critical.
To understand the importance of this biostructural masterpiece of architecture, we first need to look at why it is required. We all inherently know the brain is the master controller or maestro of the body. Outside of certain reflexes or immediate neurological responses to an external stimulus, there isn’t anything out of the realm of influence of the brain. It is the battery that powers every single vital cell, tissue, and organ keeping them actively powered-up in a composition of life through an expression of motion that is constantly monitored, managed, and manipulated. This is accomplished through a continuously transmitting two-way highway of information feedback and signaling that is going back and forth from brain to organ while we are awake and at rest. For instance, blood pressure is elevated on the treadmill automatically to match our exertion effort so that we don’t collapse from ischemia, insulin is released with even just the thought of eating to prepare for absorption, digestion, and nutrient assimilation, and respiratory rate can be altered such as the example of George’s hyperventilation when caught with nothing but a towel around his waist in that famous episode of Seinfeld eluded to in the title of this article, and before your foot even hits the ground stabilizing muscles are already beginning to fire for balance and coordination to occur in harmony so that you rise steady and strong instead of falling out of bed in the morning.
We often take many of these functions for granted only really recognizing what our brain is doing when we need it to do something, like thinking about the answer to the crossword, figuring out the math problem, deciding which Jenga block to move, tearing petals from a flower and contemplating the depth of a true love’s affection in return, or trying to remember whether she told us that we were supposed to get six lemons and four apples or pineapple and two packages of basil on the way home from work, etc. But in reality, the brain is performing a plethora of highly integrated networking between bioelectrical, biochemical, and biophysical processes simultaneously that would make our head spin if we could be made aware of them all at once. An estimated 70-100 trillion cells talk to the brain at the same time and receive various communications from the brain to modify their function into a homeostatic symphony that gives us the physical ability to do what we need to and when. To say that the magnitude of things going on at once is incomprehensible is an understatement and would be analogous to a mother hearing the input of 70 beloved kids all at once, each asking for different things and requiring a different instruction, while she is attempting to appease them concurrently, talk about impossible multi-tasking! However, the brain is actually able to take this information every day all day without missing a beat and then uses it to make certain that we are more often than not, approaching a state of growth and repair rather than breakdown and the unattractive ‘shrinkage’.
Unfortunately, changes in the spine leading to buckled loading mechanics and inevitable postural and spinal deviations can interrupt this communication line like a 5 o’clock traffic jam and create an orchestra of noise in the form of sickness and disease that includes the likes of pain, muscle tightness and spasm, joint injury and osteoarthritis, disc degeneration, osteoporosis, compression fractures, scoliosis, forward head posture and a variety of other biomechanical and physiological changes. In addition, a recent study, in particular, discovered that certain postures for prolonged periods accelerate “shrinkage” of our spine whether ‘in the pool’ or not. This leads to a host of problems from chronic neuromusculoskeletal pain in the areas of the neck, back, and hips to problems or issues involving sensorimotor incoordination or balance problems, and hyperactive sympathetic nervous system expression involving respiratory dysfunction, cardiovascular abnormalities, and even unrelenting daily, weekly, and monthly fatigue.
Some of the alterations and deviations in normal structure result from physical traumas such as looking down at a phone or tablet for extended periods, sitting with less than optimal ergonomics at a computer desk, and exercising with bad form or technique among various other common activities of daily living. These regular movements performed over and over again which result in subclinical injury are related to the effects of the phenomenon of repetitive microtrauma that leads to gradual ligament failure and increased instability. Eventually continued asymmetrical loading stresses resulting from these activities and create mechanical failure of the structure of the spine and it collapses, shrinks, or “gives” at certain areas or in regions which then produces an overture of clinical manifestations and symptoms.
The scenario is analogous to the woodpecker or termite that slowly eats away at the tree overtime before it finally falls over, instead of the “Super-Axe-Hacker’ that took out half the forest in Dr. Seuss’ Lorax. That type of massive and immediate microtrauma can also be experienced by the body and its various structures and takes the form of traditional emergencies such as a fall off a ladder, a motor vehicle crash with whiplash-associated injuries, or the plethora of childhood traumas from birth, to sports injuries, bike ramps, to snowboards, to clumsy parents or siblings and much more.
Whether small or large, these impacts can cause shifts in the spinal curves or in the individual segments of the spine that are referred to as spinal subluxations. But physical trauma resulting in these subluxations isn’t the only method by which spinal ‘shrinkage’ can occur. Other ways that the spinal segments can shift from normal position are via chemical insults such as exposure to a number of persistent organic pollutants like xenoestrogens which bioaccumulate in the tissue over time or even a diet that creates deficiencies and toxicities in the body. Both of these ‘exposures’ can inhibit optimal nerve flow through compromised metabolic pathways involving insufficient nourishment leading to a reduction in the substrates for ATP production (aka the body’s energy currency) and less fuel for optimal nerve flow velocity causing muscle stabilizer atrophy and an inability to maintain the posture for any appreciable time. Eventually, the strength to keep the spine upright is no longer present and it collapses under a progressively increased load due to a gradual weakening and fatiguing of supportive tissue, leading to spasms and pain in a variety of areas. This over-consumptive undernourishment is a significant contributing factor to spinal shrinkage because it means that people are ingesting too much of something that they do not require, resulting in a weaker, sicker, and more limited body that will eventually be forced to depend on pharmaceuticals or surgery to rescue function. This is not how the body was designed to function, heal, or operate. GMOs, artificial sweeteners, gluten, processed foods, sugar, non-organic dairy, hormones, and antibiotics in food along with preservatives, dyes, and colors don’t allow the soft tissues to receive what they need to repair, strengthen and flourish. Weak muscles can lead to progressive posture distortions, height loss, and a spinal column that is built like a bridge of wooden steps out of an Indiana Jones movie instead of something as strong and durable as the Roman aqueducts.
Lastly, and even a bit surprisingly, emotions can actually contribute to structural frailty as well. One of the mechanisms of spinal shrinkage induced by ‘Drama Trauma’ involves the assuming of the common postures of depression, shame, anger, guilt, anxiety, worry, sadness, and fear which is not one of an upright stance but typically involves full or partial body flexion. The coiling up on ones’ self. Think of a child or adult curled up on the floor and crying for one of many possible reasons in the corner with knees pulled up. They are not in an ideal posture of health and optimal function. This state of emotional disturbances and mental anguish especially when prolonged or with repetitive exposure leads to an overall weakening of the spine and posture through a habitual reinforcement and neuromuscular re-education of the posture when it is resumed. This flexed posture over time, whether related to emotional, chemical, or physical stress, creates anterior loads on the spinal discs and traction or tensile forces on the posterior ligaments and elements of the spine. The resulting asymmetric compression and stretching leads to soft tissue remodeling, bony changes, spinal cord tension, and eventually shortened height and the dreaded collapsed posture. In addition, Harvard studies have shown that this posture increases cortisol release at a significantly higher rate. Excessive cortisol release over time can cause muscle wasting and lead to dramatic consequences in the ability to keep one’s structure optimized.
Avoiding the progression of the position of your spine into a question mark from the side or even from the front, should be taken seriously if you want to avoid the medications, surgeries, wheelchairs, and eventually the nursing home that result when it is not. There are a few interventions that are showing promise at assisting in this condition of postural collapse and spinal shrinkage. One, in particular, involves advanced non-surgical spinal remodeling of the posture and spine, including the discs, muscles, and ligaments via chiropractic biophysics. This is the most researched and evidence-based technique involving state-of-the-art equipment and some of the most educated spinal biomechanics practitioners in the world. So, even though other things might potentially “shrink in the pool”, especially in chilly waters, your spine will not. But spinal shrinkage and postural collapse are no laughing matter. To make certain that you will maintain optimal function and structural integrity through your lifetime eliminate the junk in the diet and aim at least for an 80/20 split of healthy and less than optimal nutrient content, focus on your mental health and self-care, and above all make certain you get your spine and structure checked as soon as possible, get any subluxations and postural deviations corrected not just managed, and make spinal hygiene a priority. For more information and tips visit wfcalaska.com.