Back Word: A Conversation with Spine Expert Jeff Lotz

By Jeff Miller

We pay a price when we outrun our own evolution. From prostate cancer to Alzheimer’s, living longer creates new health enemies. In time, science and medicine will likely neutralize and banish these foes, as they have so many others. But new ones will certainly arise to vex and victimize us. Health has always been a balancing act.

Jeff Lotz

Fittingly, our spines are among the first to fall to the imbalance of added years. Spines were made to work well for about four decades, says Jeff Lotz, PhD, director of UCSF’s Orthopaedic Surgery Bioengineering Research Lab. And as millions can attest, when our spines stop working well, daily back pain – from the annoying to the excruciating – can become a way of life.

Lotz has spent decades trying to understand what it is about a degenerating disc that makes it hurt. Along the way, he has uncovered some surprising facts about where the pain originates, why some people feel pain and others don’t despite similar levels of degeneration, why rat tails are a good model for the human spine and what our discs have in common with garden snails.

Lotz has also confirmed that psychosocial stress is as bad for our backs as it is for our hearts. And for those seeking to impress others with their encyclopedic knowledge, Lotz can also tell you why you’re taller in the morning than you are at night.

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