The Aging Spine

Break­ing Down the Most Com­mon Con­di­tions of the Aging Spine

Essen­tial­ly, there are two fac­tors that can cause issues to the spine as we age. The first is change in the struc­tur­al integri­ty of the bone itself, oth­er­wise known as bone min­er­al den­si­ty. The sec­ond is wear and tear, or degen­er­a­tion, of the var­i­ous motion pro­duc­ing struc­tures of the spine. While there are a vari­ety of spine issues one may expe­ri­ence, these two types of con­di­tions tend to make up the major­i­ty of med­ical issues that bring patients to their doctor.

Bone Health

When we talk about the integri­ty of the bone, we are refer­ring to the bone’s min­er­al den­si­ty. Bone min­er­al den­si­ty deter­mines the over­all struc­ture and strength of our bones, with denser bones indi­cat­ing more strength. As bone los­es den­si­ty, it becomes increas­ing­ly porous, or weak and frag­ile. The more porous the bone, the more sus­cep­ti­ble it becomes to frac­ture. Depend­ing on the mag­ni­tude of den­si­ty loss, a patient may be cat­e­go­rized as hav­ing nor­mal bone den­si­ty (accept­able poros­i­ty of bone), osteope­nia (bone that is weak­er than nor­mal) or osteo­poro­sis (very weak and frag­ile bone that is more eas­i­ly fractured).

Osteope­nia & Osteoporosis

While nor­mal bone den­si­ty lev­els are ide­al for your health and safe­ty, osteope­nia and osteo­poro­sis diag­noses are more com­mon than you may think. In fact, 44 mil­lion Amer­i­cans car­ry the diag­no­sis of osteope­nia or osteo­poro­sis, with two mil­lion Amer­i­cans sus­tain­ing osteo­poro­sis relat­ed frac­tures each year. Near­ly half of these frac­tures occur in the spine, known as ver­te­bral frac­tures. A greater num­ber of women are affect­ed by osteope­nia and osteo­poro­sis dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly com­pared to men, espe­cial­ly post-menopausal women as young as 50 years of age. 

How This Affects the Spine

The unfor­tu­nate con­se­quence of osteo­poro­sis is that it puts you at risk of low-ener­gy frac­tures, mean­ing some­thing as lit­tle as a ground-lev­el fall, or even a vio­lent sneeze in the most severe cas­es, can cause a bone frac­ture. When osteo­poro­sis relat­ed frac­tures occur, they can cause pain, defor­mi­ty and neu­ro­log­i­cal prob­lems; you may even find that you are not as tall as you were pre­vi­ous­ly or that you have devel­oped a hump in your back. 

Prevention/​Management

Pre­ven­tion goes a long way in keep­ing your bones safe and strong. To main­tain healthy bone den­si­ty, eat a bal­anced diet, exer­cise reg­u­lar­ly, avoid smok­ing and alco­hol and sup­ple­ment your diet with vit­a­min D and cal­ci­um if need­ed. If you have low bone den­si­ty, or believe you are at risk of devel­op­ing osteope­nia or osteo­poro­sis, con­sult your physi­cian to learn more about diag­no­sis and treatment. 

The Degen­er­a­tive Spine

Terms such as degen­er­a­tive disc dis­ease, spondy­lo­sis, arthri­tis, bulging discs and steno­sis all describe find­ings com­mon­ly seen in an aging spine. The aging process of the spine results from mul­ti­ple fac­tors, includ­ing genet­ics, bio­chem­i­cal changes with­in the body, phys­i­cal adap­ta­tions and the mechan­i­cal wear and tear result­ing from sim­ple use. When it comes to the aging spine, genet­ics plays an impor­tant role, as some peo­ple are more vul­ner­a­ble to spine degen­er­a­tion at an ear­li­er age or at a faster rate than oth­ers. Often times, the effects of wear and tear do not war­rant sur­gi­cal inter­ven­tion and treat­ment is not typ­i­cal­ly nec­es­sary until these changes cause pain. 

How This Affects the Spine

Degen­er­a­tion of the discs and/​or indi­vid­ual joints can be poten­tial sources of pain. Because degen­er­a­tion rarely occurs in one spot, it can be dif­fi­cult to pin­point the spe­cif­ic joint or disc that is caus­ing the pain. Addi­tion­al­ly, due to the close prox­im­i­ty of our spinal discs and joints to the spinal cord and the var­i­ous nerves which stem from it, struc­tur­al changes may result in steno­sis, the phys­i­cal nar­row­ing of the space which con­tains neu­ro­log­ic struc­tures. Depend­ing on the pre­cise loca­tion, if this hap­pens, the result­ing com­pres­sion of neu­ro­log­i­cal struc­tures may cause pain, numb­ness, tin­gling, and/​or weak­ness in the arms or legs, bal­ance and dex­ter­i­ty prob­lems and changes in your bow­el and blad­der function.

Prevention/​Management

While we’re cur­rent­ly unable to pre­vent the aging and degen­er­a­tion of the spine, you may be able to avoid symp­toms by main­tain­ing a healthy and active lifestyle, nor­mal­iz­ing your Body Mass Index (BMI), devel­op­ing a strong core, prac­tic­ing good pos­ture, avoid­ing tobac­co and alco­hol use and uti­liz­ing safe lift­ing mechanics.

If you do devel­op symp­toms, there are a vari­ety of treat­ment options to con­sid­er. In the major­i­ty of cas­es, treat­ment is non-sur­gi­cal and high­ly effec­tive. How­ev­er, in the few cas­es that do require sur­gi­cal inter­ven­tion, sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­niques, includ­ing min­i­mal­ly inva­sive surgery, are avail­able to suc­cess­ful­ly treat your condition.

The bot­tom line is you were giv­en one spine and it has to last your life­time. While there are cer­tain things you can con­trol, such as mak­ing healthy lifestyle changes, there are oth­ers you can­not. Stack the cards in your favor by bet­ter under­stand­ing the way your spine works and tak­ing the nec­es­sary steps to help your spine age gracefully. 

If you do expe­ri­ence spine prob­lems, the DMG Spine Sur­geons have your back, offer­ing lead­ing-edge treat­ment tech­niques and qual­i­ty spine care to address all of your needs. Click here for more infor­ma­tion on spine health and con­di­tions, or to sched­ule an appoint­ment with one of our specialists.

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