Making ourselves healthy

To what extent can we affect our own well-being?

Making ourselves healthy is a subject that pops up in the media with increasing frequency. Every day newspapers and magazines tell us what to eat and what not to eat, how to exercise and how much sleep we need to stay young, fit and healthy forever. And a few years later, these recommendations will be reversed completely:

  • Drink red wine
  • Don't drink any wine
  • Drink green tea
  • Drink black tea
  • Drink freshly-squeezed fruit juice
  • Fresh orange juice is just as bad as Coke
  • Coffee is bad
  • Coffee is good
  • Nope, coffee is bad, after all.

We all wish to improve our health, but to what extent can we affect our own health? My dearly beloved mother-in-law was very slender, walked a lot, had a healthy diet and died of cancer at age 74. Sometimes people just get unlucky.

How spinal hernias develop

So what’s the deal with spinal hernias? Are they congenital, are they a matter of fate, or are they a way to punish people for having an unhealthy lifestyle? In order to answer that question, it is useful to investigate which people are prone to hernias. Thankfully, there is a considerable amount of literature on this subject.

Genetic disorder

First of all, spinal hernias are more common in some families than in others. Some people grow bald by age 30, while others are more likely to develop a hernia. Such a predisposition to hernias is embedded in our DNA, which is to say it is congenital.

Lifestyle and profession

In addition, certain aspects of our lifestyle also put us at an increased risk of hernia. Back in 1975, an American researcher, Ms J. Kesley from Massachusetts, reported on various professions that are overrepresented among hernia patients. You see, it turns out that there is link between people’s profession and the risk they run of developing spinal hernia.

Ms Kesley demonstrated that spinal hernias are more common among people who have a sedentary profession, e.g. office workers and professional drivers, particularly lorry drivers on long-haul shifts. Sitting may seem like an innocuous pastime, but it’s not that great for your back. If you spend more than 50% of each day driving, you are three times more likely to develop a spinal hernia than someone who does not drive. Even if you only drive to and from work, you’re at an increased risk of spinal hernia.

After childbirth

Moreover, hernias are more common among women who have given birth to a child, or to multiple children.

Manual labour

What is notable about the results of Ms Kesley’s research is that they show that people who perform heavy work which puts a considerable strain on their backs, e.g. removalists, dustmen, farmers and paviours, are not at an increased risk of developing spinal hernia.

My own experience bears this out. In my 15 years as a neurosurgeon, I have only operated once on a removalist. The great majority of my patients are ICT specialists, secretaries, tram conductors, taxi drivers and lorry drivers.

So what can you do to avoid developing a spinal hernia?

Let’s get back to making ourselves healthy. Is there anything people who are at an increased risk can do to avoid developing spinal hernia? Thankfully, there is.

Avoid getting overweight

Of course, there is no need to start looking for another job. But if you are in a profession that puts you at an increased risk of spinal hernia, you could do worse than avoiding getting overweight (refer to my previous blog on this subject).

Stay in good general health

In addition, it’s a good idea to ensure that you stay in good general health. I especially recommend training the muscles directly surrounding your spine. You can make these so-called core muscles stronger, thus allowing them to help the spine carry your body. Because the real reason causing us to have hernias is the fact that at one point in the course of evolution we human beings began to walk upright.

After all, a hernia is a bulging intervertebral disc. These discs grew to have an additional function in us human beings, which was to absorb shock. Ponies, for instance, only need intervertebral discs to keep their backs mobile. They do not get hernias.

Last but not least, according to Ms Kelsey, people who are married are not at an increased risk of spinal hernia. Now there’s a relief!

In other words, having a healthy back is a gift of nature and the result of human efforts. But if those two aren’t working for you, you can always come and see a surgeon in the event of trouble.

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