Spinal Problems Aging

Age changes the human body in countless ways, and the spine is no exception. The wear and tear of time, old injuries and bad habits all contribute to what happens to the aging spine. However, changes to the spine do not always lead to pain, and it’s possible to take steps to keep your spine healthy as you age.

Spine Anatomy and Aging

In the human spine, gel-like discs separate the bones, called vertebrae. These discs lose water with age, which gives the body less cushioning between the bones, causing the spine to become compressed and your torso to become shorter.

The vertebrae also lose bone density with age, causing the spinal column to become curved and compressed. Extra bone matter — called “bone spurs” or “osteophytes” — may develop on the vertebrae as the spine ages.

Five Common Problems of the Aging Spine

Following are five of the most common problems that occur as the spine ages:

  • Degenerative Disc Disease: As mentioned, discs degenerate with age, which itself is not a problem. However, the discs can pinch and put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves, causing pain.
  • Loss of Bone Mass: The vertebrae of the spine can lose bone mass, leading to osteoporosis and high risk of vertebral compression fractures.
  • Lumbar Spinal Stenosis: Another condition that usually only occurs after age 50 is lumbar spinal stenosis. The spinal cord and nerve roots live in the spinal canal that runs through the vertebrae. Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal, which compresses the entire spinal cord.
  • Osteoarthritis: Also called degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis can occur in the joints of the spine, just as in any other joint in the body. Spinal osteoarthritis can cause stiffness and pain in the neck or in the lower back.
  • Spondylolisthesis: In adults, spondylolisthesis is usually associated with osteoarthritis or other degenerative conditions. In people with spondylolisthesis, one vertebra slips forward and onto the bone below it. This condition most commonly occurs in the lower spine, between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae.

Slowing Down the Effects of Aging on the Spine

The steps to support the aging spine are the same tips you hear for staying healthy in general:

  • Don’t smoke. Smoking dehydrates the vertebral discs, interferes with the body’s circulation and respiration needed to provide nutrition to the spine, and interferes with healing.
  • Eat a healthy diet. The spine needs nutrients to stay healthy and strong. Get enough calcium and vitamin D to help prevent osteoporosis.
  • Exercise. Exercise strengthens the muscles that support your spine, to improve joint mobility, and to stay flexible.
  • Maintain an appropriate weight. The spine supports the body’s weight, and has to work harder to support extra weight.

Resources

Aging Spine Center Staff. (n.d.). What happens to our spines as we grow older? Retrieved March 2, 2010, from http://www.agingspinecenter.com/featured_articles/FA_spine_grow_older.asp

Spine Universe Staff. (n.d.). Aging spine: Older doesn’t mean more painful. Retrieved March 2, 2010, from http://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/aging-seniors-spine-condition-center

Simmons Orthopaedic