Five Ways To Protect Your Aging Spine

A tidal wave of Americans will reach 65 in the coming years. But here’s what else is coming: more people who suffer from acute back pain and spinal pain, according to orthopedic surgeon Dr.  Pierre Bruneau with CareMount Medical.

Back pain is universally experienced, with 8 out of 10 Americans suffering regardless of their age. Regrettably this common condition worsens with the passage of time as the body ages, where we see the breakdown of bones, joints and muscles. But not all is lost. Dr. Bruneau explains that adults can take measures to prevent and lessen the development of back pain.

“As the body ages, the spine takes on additional pressure and wear,” states Dr. Bruneau. “But while these conditions increase among seniors, medical innovations are making it easier to prevent and treat back pain.”

Dr. Monica Gupta, an endocrinologist with CareMount Medical who also treats osteoporosis, clarifies that certain spine conditions increase in older populations. These conditions include: 

  • Herniated discs: When the gel-like discs between each spinal vertebra lose water dehydrate over time, they are more likely to flatten and become herniated. This misalignment places pressure on spinal nerves and can cause leg pain, according to Dr. Bruneau.
  • Spondylolisthesis: Similar to a herniated disc, this condition occurs when a vertebra slips out of place, causing the entire spinal column to become unstable and increasing the chances of a back injury. Since ligaments and connective tissues lose strength and elasticity over time, spondylolisthesis can occur more easily among older adults according to Dr. Bruneau.
  • Facet joint arthritis: As wear and tear accumulates on the joints, arthritis is the most common cause of joint pain. This joint erosion is inevitable in some joints because of the frequent pressure on the spine during everyday life.
  • Frail vertebrae from osteoporosis: As the body ages, bone density tends to decrease. According to Dr. Gupta, “Many seniors develop frail vertebrae from weakening conditions, such as osteoporosis. This condition puts osteoporotic and elderly patients at a greater risk of sustaining a vertebral compression fracture without significant trauma.”
  • Spinal stenosis: As a result from arthritis or other injuries, the spinal column will narrow in a condition called spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis places pressure on the highly sensitive nerves of the spinal cord, causing discomfort, leg pain, leg heaviness and difficulty walking.

5 Tips to build strength and prevent back pain

Though the risk of spinal issues increase with age, action can certainly be taken to strengthen one’s back to prevent pain and spinal conditions. Dr. Bruneau recommends that adults:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight: Extra pounds, particularly around the middle of the body, can put pressure on the lower back. “Staying within 10 pounds of your ideal weight is the goal, and may help control back pain,” he says.
  2. Exercise: Regular physical activity—both cardio and muscular activity— can not only ease muscle tension and inflammation, but strengthen back muscles. “A strong core helps you to place less strain on the spine,” Dr. Bruneau explains, “making injuries less likely to occur.” “Walking for at least 30 minutes per day is also great exercise for bone health,” Dr. Gupta adds.
  3. Practice good posture: When sitting, keep your knees higher than your hips and look for chairs with a straight back. When walking, keep your head perpendicular to the ground and engage your abdominal muscles.
  4. Don’t smoke: Smoking does not promote your physical well-being as a whole, and back health is no exception, Dr. Gupta says. “Smoking lessens the flow of nutrients to spinal discs, so smokers are especially susceptible to spinal conditions,” she adds. Dr. Gupta advises that smoking can also increase risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.
  5. Lift carefully: Always lift heavy or bulky objects by bending at the knees, not at the waist. “Don’t twist the spine while lifting,” Dr. Bruneau advises, “and if it’s possible, push rather than pull heavy objects.” “Don’t be afraid to ask for help if necessary,” says Dr. Gupta.

“Older adults can protect themselves by educating themselves about common conditions that lead to back problems. With knowledge about how to care for your back, seniors can keep themselves as comfortable and mobile as possible,” says Dr. Bruneau.