The spine height varies naturally over the day. You do know that you are taller in the morning compared to the evening hours, before lying down…right? You may think this is not important, but if you are a back pain sufferer it is imperative that you learn your triggers to help figure out what to do about it. And the height changes in the spine are an important clue, if you are wanting to get to the bottom of it.

Why is it important to get to know your natural height change? Well, it is so you learn when to deliver exercise to the spine to help reduce inflammation. I will explain later.

back pains

I am not the only one that thinks “non-specific back pain” is a cop out. In my opinion, there is no such thing as non-specific back pain. And I am not the only one that thinks this. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, has developed a specific strategy to identify where the pain is in the spine.

If you continue to have problems with your back or neck, and want to get a better handle on what the triggers are, it is important to understand the natural changes in the intervertebral discs as they compress over the day, and recover hydraulic height in the evening when you lie down. And one may think the height loss is linear but it isn’t.

As you can see in the below figure from an important study in 2006, the height of the discs (verticle axis) over 24hrs (horizontal axis).

spine height, discs, intervertebral disc

Spine height changes over a 24hr cycle.

Upon first rise in the morning you can see the spine loses it’s height very quickly (arrow below). This is a period of instability and should not be a time that you want to stretch the spine too much. It is also a time where many people feel stiff. We do know now that this is a signature of a degenerative disc disease. If you do wake up with stiffness, do not worry. It is very common and there are many things you can do to help turn this process around. For one, DON’T over stretch within the first hour upon rising. Wait till the discs have settled down in height before you do anything like this.

height loss, discs, morning stiffness

Accelerated height loss first thing in the morning.

Disc height loss is at the crux of Degenerative Disc Disease. Back pain is now the number one global burden of disease as recently published in The Lancet.

Disc height loss is the most common finding in degenerative disc disease which is what we know causes the most back pain. Again,

disc height loss = more common back/neck pain

Therefore, if we work to recover the disc height over the course of the day, less recovery will need to occur. Here are a couple tips for back pain.

  1. lie down for 10 minutes a couple times a day
  2. perform offloading strategies throughout your day. This first video below is an offloading strategy I had published  (see below).

This next standing strategy also helps with offloading from a standing position to improve disc height.

Be sure to consult with your chiropractor or family physician before performing these strategies to make sure it is your discs that are causing your root pain, we don’t want to do these if there is something more serious going on. It is always important to rule out pathology first.