As we get older, it’s not uncommon to experience increased aches, pains and joint stiffness. Many of us assume this discomfort just goes with the territory – and in fact, when it comes to the spine, some decline in function and flexibility may be expected as the bones and intervertebral disks begin to deteriorate over time. But there are several things you can do right now to help maintain your spine’s flexibility and comfort well into your golden years. Here’s what you should know about what happens to your spine as you age, common spinal conditions in older adults, and ways to help prevent back pain and injuries in the future.
Disk degeneration and narrowing of the spinal canal may occur as part of the natural aging process.
Like any other part of the body, the spine is subject to everyday stresses that eventually wear down its structures over time. Specifically, the disks that act as cushions between the spine’s vertebrae begin to shrink and get worn down as their moisture content declines. As a result, the vertebral bones begin to rub against one another, potentially causing back pain and stiffness. Read about degenerative disk disease here. Meanwhile, the column that houses and protects the spinal cord can narrow over time in a condition known as spinal stenosis, which may be quite painful due to resulting compression of the cord and spinal nerves. These and other aspects of the aging process may be accelerated if you’ve previously experienced a spinal injury, if you are overweight, if you smoke, or if your daily activities subject your spine to a greater-than-average amount of wear and tear.
Common spinal conditions in older adults may manifest themselves in symptoms such as early morning back pain, leg pain when standing and walking, loss of height and more.
Facet joint osteoarthritis is a kind of spinal arthritis that develops as the cartilage separating the facet joints gradually breaks down over time. Typical symptoms of this condition include low back pain and stiffness that seems worse in the morning and at the end of the day, as well as after extended periods of physical activity. Osteoarthritis may also cause radiating leg pain and weakness known as sciatica.
Lumbar spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal that occurs in the lower back, resulting in low back and leg pain that characteristically occurs while standing or walking more than a short distance but dissipates once you sit down or lean forward. Pain associated with this condition can be moderate to severe and may also occur with symptoms of sciatica including tingling and numbness in the buttocks and legs.
Degenerative spondylolisthesis may cause similar symptoms to those associated with lumbar spinal stenosis, and is primarily seen in patients aged 65 and older. It occurs when weakened facet joints, ligaments and bones allow a vertebra to “slip” forward so that it is out of alignment with the vertebra below it. When an older person experiences lower back and/or leg pain that lessens while sitting and worsens when standing upright, plus a loss of flexibility in the lower back and pain while bending backwards, degenerative spondylolisthesis may be the reason.
Compression fractures are another spinal injury that can occur as part of the aging process, especially in those with poor bone strength due to osteoporosis. Such fractures may cause a vertebral bone to partially collapse, losing part of its height. They most often occur in the thoracic and upper lumbar portions of the spine, and are typically accompanied by sudden and severe back pain, spinal deformity, loss of height and an inability to participate in routine physical exercise.
Importantly, back and neck pain that occurs as part of the aging process can and should be treated – particularly if it keeps you from being active and doing the things you enjoy. Patients who experience pain from the above conditions can typically get substantial relief via nonsurgical medical treatments.
Taking the right steps now can help you avoid the above conditions and their associated symptoms in later years.
While not all back pain can be avoided, the time to start protecting yourself against preventable spine problems when you are older is now. This starts with exercising regularly to keep off excess weight and strengthen the core muscles in your back and abdomen. You can do so with targeted stretches as well as safe aerobic activity such as walking, bicycling, swimming and yoga.
Meanwhile, be mindful of your posture at all times – especially while seated at your desk at work. Make needed adjustments to your chair and computer screen, make sure you have the proper lumbar support, and stretch and warm your muscles before any physical activity. You should also avoid lifting heavy objects by yourself whenever possible, and always use correct bending, twisting and lifting techniques. See below for details on these and other methods you can employ to decrease your likelihood of experiencing chronic back pain as you age:
- Strengthen your core muscles via targeted exercises including aerobics, flexion (bending forward) and extension (bending backward) stretches.
- Avoid putting undue stress on your spine by practicing proper posture and making ergonomic adjustments to your work station.
- Avoid lifting objects that are heavier than 25% of your own body weight.
- Eat a balanced diet that includes anti-inflammatory foodsand vitamin D to keep your bones strong.
- If you’re a smoker, get the help you need to stop.
- Consider buying a better, more supportive mattress or trying a new sleeping position if you have trouble with your back in the morning.
- If you encounter lots of stress on a daily basis, find ways to relax and loosen your back and neck muscles at the end of each day.
- Remember that depression can play a significant role in back pain, and seek help if you need it in the form of counseling and relaxation methods.
- Be practical about your exercise routine, and avoid overdoing it with repetitive movements that can lead to muscle strains and sprains.
- Treat strains and sprains that do occur with rest, ice, compression and elevation as soon as possible, and consult a medical professional if your pain is recurring or persists more than two weeks.
- Talk to your doctor about over-the-counter medications for controlling pain and inflammation.
Information courtesy of the Spine Health Institute