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What Happens to the Spine as We Age?

As we age, many changes occur throughout our body. Your spine is just one of the many parts affected by age, use, inactivity, and lifestyle. It’s susceptible to disease, can be damaged by injury, and needs regular exercise to maintain its health. If you want to know how to keep a healthy spine for life, then check out this guide to your spine and its well-being. If you’re experiencing symptoms that affect your daily life, 360 Back & Spine Center can help.

Your Spine and the Aging Process

It should be no surprise that, like the rest of your body, your spine ages as you do. As you may expect, stiffness, discomfort, aches, and soreness are common symptoms of the maturing process. Unfortunately, the aching and stiffness can be a sign of more than just a natural process. They can signal spine degeneration or other debilitating issues. While some symptoms can just be par for the course, others may be manifestations of frequently seen conditions.

Common Spine Problems in Older Adults

Cervical Spine Conditions

Neck tenderness happens in a world where we’re always staring down at an electronic device. Some pains are worth paying attention to, though. Your cervical spine is what is most commonly called the neck or the first seven vertebrae of the spine. Due to its complex nature and wide range of motion, this part of the spine is prone to degenerative conditions. These conditions include:

  • Degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis)
  • Arthritis (spondylosis)
  • Bony growths known as osteophytes
  • Bulging or herniated discs (discs that have moved out of place through a tear)

Thoracic Spine Diseases

The thoracic spine is the next segment of your vertebrae. For reference, it’s in the chest and upper abdominal area of your body. The ribs connect to this part of your spine and protect your vital organs. Though the range of motion requirements are a bit different for this part of your spine, the diseases aren’t much different. Aging causes degenerative issues with the spine that include:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Spinal narrowing (stenosis)
  • Bulging discs
  • Herniated discs
  • Compression fractures (associated with loss of bone strength)
  • Bone spurs (tiny, smooth protrusions on bone surfaces)
  • Inflammation of facet joints
  • Degenerative scoliosis (adult scoliosis)
  • Humpback (hyperkyphosis)

Doctors Looking at X-Rays

Lumbar Spine Diseases

The lumbar spine is the part of the spine people tend to be most familiar with. It’s because those with jobs that require heavy lifting wear lumbar supports, and we use lumbar supports for our office chairs. The lumbar spine is the part we refer to as the lower back. Some age-related issues that affect the lumbar spine are:

Sacral Spine Diseases

Out of all of the spinal segments, this is probably the least heard of. It’s integral in the everyday movements we take for granted. Bending, stretching, lifting, and twisting all take their toll on the sacral spine. It has an important nerve called the sciatic nerve which runs from the lower part of the lumbar spine through the sacrum, which can cause additional issues not seen in other areas of the spine. The disease we hear about most often tends to be sacroiliac disease or sciatica. Issues with the sacral spine include:

  • Sacroiliac joint inflammation (inflammation of the joints that connect the sacrum to the pelvis)
  • Sciatic nerve constriction (impingement), known as sciatica
  • Herniated disc

The Tailbone or Coccyx

Humans may not have a tail anymore, but they do have a “tailbone.” The coccyx is the very last part of your spin and what you sit on. Since it’s not segmented like the other parts of the spine, it doesn’t come with all of the potential issues. However, it does suffer from damage due to wear and tear (or from having a baby if you’re a woman), which causes pain and discomfort.

Elderly People Stretching

Preventing Common Spinal Problems

While aging does affect your spine no matter what you do, there are ways to ensure you age gracefully. For starters, you’ll want to make sure you keep proper posture throughout your life. Having good posture and an ergonomic work area, as well as a supportive mattress, reduces the stress on your back, which, in turn, will lessen the possibilities of degenerative effects.

Another easy way to keep your back healthy is to eat a healthy diet, which includes vitamin D to promote bone health. Eating anti-inflammatory foods will also maintain your body and your spine’s fitness. To coincide with a balanced diet is exercise. Strengthening and supporting your core muscles while preserving flexibility is essential to spine health throughout your life, though lifting things that are too heavy will have adverse side effects.

Smoking, stress, and depression have negative effects on your body and back, too. Reducing stress, quitting (or never starting) cigarettes, and treating depression will improve spinal wellbeing.

Last, if you do injure your back, you should treat it appropriately. Care for sprains with rest, ice, elevation, and compression. Serious injuries and unrelenting pain should be addressed by a doctor. A physician should also evaluate chronic back pain to ensure your spine health is protected.

It doesn’t appear you can reverse damage once it’s been done but, certainly, you can prevent it from getting any worse. Be mindful of your lifestyle and your spine will appreciate it.

Doctors Touching Patient

When Is Surgery Needed?

No one wants to have surgery, but sometimes it’s the only way to fix severe issues, chronic pain, and damage your body can’t repair. When exercise, rest, stretching, medications, and other non-invasive treatments don’t work, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Conditions Treated with Surgery

When other treatments fail, surgery may be your best option. Quite a few conditions can be treated with a spinal fusion. These include spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, spondylolisthesis, and non-age related conditions. While this surgery can be performed at any level of the back, cervical fusion and lumbar spinal fusion are seen quite regularly. It entails attaching or “fusing” the two bones together and allowing them to heal as one to correct problems and eliminate pain.

Another type of surgery is a diskectomy, which removes a portion of a disc when it’s become herniated, causing pain and pressure. There are times when a whole disc may need to be removed. The lumbar spine is a common area where this surgery might be needed. Herniated discs can also be treated with something called a laminectomy or laminotomy. A laminectomy is when the lamina (roof of the spinal canal) is removed, as opposed to a laminotomy, which is an opening created to relieve pressure.

Spondylosis, on the other hand, can be treated with various surgeries depending on the issues it causes. Anything from fusion to facetectomy (removal of the facet) can be required to treat the many conditions that may arise.

Meanwhile, spinal stenosis or narrowing can be treated with several types of surgery as well. For instance, a foraminotomy, or a widening of the foramen, may be done to fix the damage done by a bone spur. The foramen is the opening in the vertebra that the spinal cord passes through. A laminectomy or laminotomy may be done for decompression, and fusion may address spinal instability.

Please note that while some popular surgeries are mentioned here, they are by no means the only surgeries or the only conditions treated with surgery. Consult with your doctor for more details on what type of treatment you may need.

Seeking Medical Attention

You may not be young forever, but you can treat your spine like the vital body part it is. Doing everything you can to keep it healthy is tough work but well worth it. Sometimes, though, genetics, work, lifestyle, or injury may leave you with pain. A doctor can help you decide on the right treatment course for you. Contact 360 Back and Spine Center, your spine specialist in Grapevine at 682-223-1406 to learn more.

Sources

  1. https://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/neck-pain/how-aging-affects-your-cervical-spine
  2. https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/tc/spondylolisthesis-topic-overview#1