The Aging Spine: Slow the Process

Aging is inevitable and although we may know them as our “golden years,” our latter years in life can be filled with what some term as “falling apart.”

In our clinics we often hear, “Once I hit ‘x’ years old, the wheels fell off and it takes me so long to recover.”

Aging causes global changes to our body, and our spine is no exception.

Each vertebra in our spine is separated with spacers called discs. Each disc is primarily comprised of water and accounts for a fair amount of our height. Our discs degenerate as we age. You may notice (or will) that you’ve lost a few inches as you navigate your “golden years.” As our discs lose height, so do you.

Lumbar Discs

The image to the left shows a side view of the lumbar spine. Each disc spaces the vertebra (bones) and allows for the nerves to exit the spine unimpeded. As we age or our spine wears, the discs thin and break down.

For some, wakening hours are spent loosening up. Stiff spines and joints require some morning stretches or simply walking to get moving.

For others, the morning is marked with increased pain, which is typically a disc issue.

As we sleep, our discs absorb water and nutrients. For this reason, we’re actually our tallest first thing in the morning. That said, the increased fluid exerts pressure on the outside wall of the disc, exacerbating any existing disc herniations.

For this reason, most patients are instructed to spend the better half of 15 minutes weight bearing every morning. Doing so will relieve fluid and pressure from the discs.

Degeneration

Our discs degenerate as we age. The image to the left displays a thinning disc. Note how this will make you shorter, but also close off the opening where the nerve exits the spine. Degeneration can cause pressure or crowding to the nerve root.

Breakdown and ‘wear and tear’ in the spine is a little different.

As we age, our discs lose their ability to rehydrate.

Imagine leaving a jelly donut out on the counter for a couple days. The donut would start to dry, flake, and crumble. This same process occurs in our back, albeit at a much slower pace.

As discs lose their water content, they shrink. This shrinking results in approximating vertebral bones and narrowing of the nerve openings (foramina) in your spine — which can lead to pain, tingling, and numbness.

Slowing the Aging Process

Multiple factors play a role in the health of our spine: posture, body composition, repetitive lifting, and genetics.

Although a bad back may run in your family, your lifestyle may be a larger contributing factor. Poor posture, repetitive lifting, and obesity all accelerate the degenerative process. Aside from genetics, modification of these habits can preserve the structure of your spine.

In a recent article by the John Hopkins Arthritis Center, researchers found that every additional pound gained adds four additional pounds of pressure to the spine.

Think about it. Losing ten pounds can offload your spine up to 40 pounds of pressure.

Another study from the SPINE Journal suggested that proper lifting technique can reduce your risk of back pain by eleven times.

Other lifestyle changes to slow spinal aging should include weight lifting and stretching programs.

Such minor changes in your daily routine and habits can yield large gains.

Protecting your spine through safe exercise and proper movement can insure that your “golden years” are truly golden.

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