Aging in Your Spine and How it Can Lead to Back Pain

How long do you expect to live? It may be longer than you think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), life expectancy in the United States has been steadily increasing since data have been collected on the subject, and today the average American lives to almost 79 years old. Of course, many healthy people live well past that age and are still enjoying life in triple digits. 

This is testament to healthier diets and lifestyles as well as modern medicine, but it doesn't come without a downside. Because everything that ages eventually deteriorates and breaks down, modern Americans need to take their health more seriously throughout their lifetime, and that includes the spine.

At American Rehabilitation Medicine in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, triple-board certified Dr. Stanley Mathew specializes in spinal issues and helps our aging patients strengthen and preserve their spinal health so they can stay active for years to come. 

Unfortunately, we meet most of our patients after they already begin to experience symptoms of an aging spine, chief among them — general back pain. Here are some of the most common conditions associated with an older spine.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, and it can strike any joint in your body. When it affects your back, it typically attacks the facet joints that line up on either side of your spinal column and connect your individual vertebrae to the spinal canal. 

When aged cartilage between the joints wears away, it allows bones to rub against one another. You’ll feel back pain, stiffness and immobility, inflammation, and tenderness. 

Herniated disc

Your spine has round discs positioned in between each bony vertebra to absorb shock and prevent your bones from rubbing together. They allow you to move freely, bending and twisting as you wish. 

The outer shell, called the annulus, is fairly durable and can take a decent amount of pressure, but an accident that compacts or dislocates your spine can cause a disc to tear, allowing its gel-like inner core to bulge out and press on nearby nerves. This is called a herniated disc, and it can be quite painful and debilitating.

Unfortunately, your discs don’t even need a traumatic accident to rupture. As you age, the annulus dries out and becomes brittle, which means it may herniate for little or no reason at all.

Spinal stenosis

Your spinal column is like a superhighway for all your nerves. A complex network of nerve roots and fibers runs up and down and in and out of your spine, sending messages to and from your brain. One of your spine’s main purposes is to protect these nerves, but it’s a crowded space, so if anything causes it to narrow — spinal stenosis — your nerves become irritated or damaged. 

This typically happens in your neck or lower back, and you may feel numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness, and these symptoms may extend to your arms and legs. 

Age-related degenerative problems, such as herniated discs, tumors, and thickened ligaments make spinal stenosis a common condition among those over age 50

Compression fractures

As you age, your bones lose density and become thinner and more brittle. Osteoporosis accelerates that process, and vertebrae are typically the first bones to fall victim to this disease. In fact, you may not experience any symptoms of osteoporosis until you have unexplained back pain and learn you have a compression fracture.

About 700,000 people suffer from age-related vertebral compression fractures every year, making them twice as common as broken hips and wrists. 

What can you do for an aging spine?

You can’t stop the clock or the calendar, but you can take proactive steps to maintain your spine health. For instance, if you’re a smoker, quit now. Smoking is linked to intervertebral disc disease, and it facilitates osteoporosis. 

Being overweight or obese puts your spine at risk as well. If you carry excess fat in your torso, studies show that you increase your chances of spine problems such as: herniated discs, disc degeneration, spinal stenosis, and osteoarthritis. 

Eating a healthy diet (including plenty of calcium and vitamin D), exercising regularly, with special attention to your core muscles, and avoiding situations where a fall is likely can help you maintain a strong spine and pain-free back.

But when injury or disease occur, we can help. Dr. Mathew is highly skilled and experienced, and he can diagnose and treat your spine condition whether it’s hereditary, acute, chronic, or age-related. From yoga, massage, and exercises, to medication, trigger point injections, and nerve blocks, he customizes your treatment plan to alleviate your pain and let you emerge better than ever.

To learn more about spinal conditions and your treatment options, contact us by phone at 319-369-7331, or request an appointment online today. 

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