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As you age, it's not uncommon to experience increased aches, pains and joint stiffness. When it comes to the spine, some decline in function and flexibility may be expected as the bones and intervertebral disks begin to deteriorate over time. However, there are several things you can do now to help maintain your spinal flexibility and stay comfortable well into your golden years.
What Happens to Your Spine as You Age?
Disk degeneration and narrowing of the spinal canal may occur as part of the natural aging process.
Like any other part of the body, the spine is subject to everyday stresses that eventually erode its structures over time. The disks that act as cushions between the spinal vertebrae begin to shrink and wear down as their moisture content declines. As a result, the vertebral bones rub against one another, potentially causing back pain and stiffness.
Meanwhile, the column that houses and protects the spinal cord can narrow in a condition known as spinal stenosis, which may be quite painful due to resulting compression of the cord and spinal nerves. These and other aspects of the aging process may be accelerated if you've previously experienced a spinal injury, if you are overweight, if you smoke or if your daily activities subject your spine to a greater-than-average amount of wear and tear.
Common Spine Conditions in Older Adults
In older adults, these conditions may manifest themselves in symptoms such as early morning back pain, leg pain when standing and walking, loss of height and more.
Facet joint osteoarthritis is a kind of spinal arthritis that develops as the cartilage separating the facet joints gradually breaks down over time. Typical symptoms include lower back pain and stiffness that seems worse in the morning and at the end of the day, as well as after extended periods of physical activity. Osteoarthritis may also cause radiating leg pain and weakness known as sciatica.
Lumbar spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal that occurs in the lower back, resulting in lower back and leg pain that characteristically occurs while standing or walking more than a short distance, but dissipates once you sit down or lean forward. Pain associated with this condition can be moderate to severe and may also occur with symptoms of sciatica — including tingling and numbness in the buttocks and legs.
Degenerative spondylolisthesis may cause similar symptoms to those associated with lumbar spinal stenosis, and is primarily seen in people 65 and older. It occurs when weakened facet joints, ligaments and bones allow a vertebra to slip forward so that it’s out of alignment with the vertebra below it. When an older person experiences lower back or leg pain that lessens while sitting and worsens when standing upright, plus a loss of flexibility in the lower back and pain while bending backwards, degenerative spondylolisthesis may be the reason.
Compression fractures are another spine injury that can occur as part of the aging process, especially in those with poor bone strength due to osteoporosis. Such fractures may cause a vertebral bone to partially collapse, losing part of its height. They most often occur in the thoracic and upper lumbar portions of the spine and are typically accompanied by sudden and severe back pain, spinal deformity, loss of height and an inability to participate in routine physical exercise.
Back and neck pain that occurs as part of the aging process can and should be treated, particularly if it keeps you from being active and doing the things you enjoy. Patients who experience pain from the above conditions can typically get substantial relief via nonsurgical medical treatments.
Taking the right spine care steps now can help you avoid these conditions and their symptoms in later years.
Preventing Future Back Pain and Injuries
While not all back pain can be avoided, the time to start protecting yourself against preventable spine problems in the future is now. This starts with exercising regularly to keep off excess weight and strengthen core muscles in your back and abdomen. You can do so with targeted stretches, as well as safe aerobic activity such as walking, bicycling, swimming and yoga.
Meanwhile, be mindful of your posture, especially while seated at your desk. Make needed adjustments to your chair and computer screen, ensure you have the proper lumbar support and stretch and warm your muscles before any physical activity. You should also avoid lifting heavy objects by yourself whenever possible, and always use correct bending, twisting and lifting techniques.
See below for details on methods you can employ to decrease your likelihood of experiencing chronic back pain as you age:
- Strengthen your core muscles via targeted exercises like aerobics or forward and backward bending stretches
- Avoid putting undue stress on your spine by using proper posture and ergonomic adjustments at work
- Avoid lifting objects heavier than 25% of your body weight
- Eat a balanced diet with anti-inflammatory food and vitamin D
- If you're a smoker, get the help you need to stop
- Consider a more supportive mattress or new sleep position for morning back pain
- If you suffer from chronic back pain, consult a spine specialist — recurring and debilitating back pain is never normal and can be mitigated with assistance
- If you encounter lots of daily stress, focus on relaxing and loosening back and neck muscles before bed
- Depression can play a significant role in back pain: Seek help in the form of counseling and relaxation methods
- Avoid repetitive movements that can lead to muscle strains and sprains
- Treat strains and sprains with rest, ice, compression and elevation as soon as possible, and consult a medical professional if pain recurs or persists more than two weeks
- Talk to your doctor about over-the-counter medications to control pain and inflammation
If you suffer from chronic back pain, an AdventHealth specialist is ready to guide you toward better spine health and get you back to enjoying life.