Caring for an Aging Spine
Rates of back pain, which is experienced by 8 in 10 American adults regardless of age, only increase with advancing years because of the gradual breakdown of bone, joints, and muscles. But all is not lost with the passage of time: Older adults can take many effective steps to build their back strength and prevent spine-related pain, says Kaliq Chang, MD, an interventional pain management specialist board-certified in anesthesiology, who practices at Atlantic Spine Center.
About 44.7 million Americans, or 1 in every 7 people, were age 65 or older in 2013, the latest year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. But this age group is expected to increase to nearly 22 percent of the total population by the year 2040.
“An aging body means the spine is aging, too,” Dr. Chang says. “But while certain back conditions are more common among older adults, there are also more ways than ever to combat the effects of getting older on the spine.”
Common Conditions in Aging Spines
The incidence of certain spine conditions increases in seniors, Dr. Chang notes. These include:
- Arthritis: The accumulation of wear and tear on the joints, arthritis is likely the most common spine problem of age simply because the spine is comprised of three joints between each two vertebrae—with a total of 25 joint levels from top to bottom of the spine, Dr. Chang says. “With so many joints in the spine, it’s logical that some will wear down with use,” he adds.
- Herniated discs: The gel-like discs between each set of spinal vertebrae naturally lose water content over time, making them more likely to flatten under the vertebrae’s weight and become herniated. This outward protrusion can place pressure on spinal nerves, causing pain, Dr. Chang says.
- Spinal stenosis: A narrowing of the spinal column that often results from arthritis or injuries, spinal stenosis places pressure on the highly sensitive nerves of the spinal cord, he says.
- Spondylolisthesis: This problem occurs when a single vertebra slips out of place, causing the entire spinal column to become unstable and increasing the chances of a back injury. Since ligaments and other connective tissues lose strength and elasticity in older adults over time, spondylolisthesis becomes more common in this group, Dr. Chang says.
- Frail vertebrae from osteoporosis: Bone density typically decreases in seniors, with many developing the bone-weakening condition osteoporosis. This condition leads to a heightened risk of fractures.
Tips to Build Strength and Prevent Back Pain
Although the odds of spine problems certainly rise with age, that doesn’t mean older adults can’t build back strength and do their part to prevent some age-related spine conditions, Dr. Chang says. His strength-building and pain prevention tips include:
- Exercise: Unquestionably, regular physical activity can not only ease muscle tension and inflammation, but strengthen back muscles. “This helps your core to be stronger and more supportive of your spinal column,” Dr. Chang explains, “making injuries less likely.”
- Maintain a healthy weight: Extra pounds, particularly around the middle, can shift your center of gravity and strain your lower back. “Staying within 10 pounds of your ideal weight is the goal, and may help control back pain,” he says.
- Practice good posture: Keep knees a little higher than your hips while seated, and look for chairs with a straight back or lower-back support. Also, when walking, keep your head up and your abdomen muscles pulled in.
- Don’t smoke: Smoking isn’t good for any health promotion efforts, and back health is no exception, Dr. Chang says. “Smoking lessens the flow of nutrients to spinal discs, so smokers are especially susceptible to back problems,” he adds.
- Pick a better bag or briefcase: The best bag to prevent back problems has a wide, adjustable strap that can reach over your head and be worn diagonally. These messenger-style bags distribute the weight in the bag more evenly which helps to lessen the strain on shoulder and back muscles.
- Lift carefully: Always lift heavy or bulky objects by bending at the knees, not at the waist. “Don’t twist while lifting,” Dr. Chang advises, “and if it’s possible, push rather than pull heavy objects.”
If, despite all efforts, you’re dealing with back problems, consider visiting a spine specialist for a firm diagnosis and course of action, Dr. Chang says. Treatment may include prescription or over-the-counter medications, steroid injections, physical therapy or surgery.
“Older adults can help protect themselves by being armed with information about common conditions and injuries leading to back problems and taking proactive steps to combat them,” Dr. Chang says. “After all, death and taxes may be inevitable, as the old saying goes, but back pain doesn’t need to join that list.”