How to Take Care of Your Aching Back as You Age

Everyone needs a little extra TLC for their aging spine
illustration of spine with flare up of pain and disks

Back pain can be crippling and can deter you from doing your daily activities. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your spine starts to age in your 20s and 30s and it continues throughout the rest of your life. A little preventive effort could go a long way to reducing your chances of suffering from debilitating back pain.

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We all experience degenerative changes, but the good news is that these changes don’t always cause serious problems, says spine specialist Kush Goyal, MD.

“There is no actual disease called degenerative disk disease,” says Dr. Goyal. “DDD is not a diagnosis, but more representative of natural aging in the spine that we all eventually experience. Natural degenerative changes lead to pain in the back and/or legs. However, more often than not, these changes do not cause any symptoms.”

Arthritis is common in the aging spine

Everyone’s spine ages, but for different reasons. One of the common problems is arthritis

“You can potentially see the similar degenerative changes on an MRI of the spine in any two 50-year-old patients, one with symptoms and one without symptoms,” he says.

A clinical exam is the best time for your doctor to learn about your history and to also do a physical exam. If your doctor says you have degenerative changes, it’s typically some form of arthritis of the spine.

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The percentage of patients with a significant amount of degenerative changes increases as people age. For example, in the average 80-year-old, more than 80% will have a significant amount of arthritis in their spine.

“Another common degenerative change is that the disc or cushions between the major bones in the spine become smaller,” says Dr. Goyal. “They may appear to have less height and bulge and the color of the discs on MRI or the water content of the discs may decrease with time as well.”

Signs of larger problems 

If you are experiencing any of the following red flags, it’s time to consult with your doctor or spine specialist:

  • Progressive weakness.
  • Clumsiness or poor balance.
  • Pain that persists or worsens beyond a couple of months.
  • Bowel or bladder changes. These may be caused by spinal cord or nerve roots being compressed.

How to maintain spine health

As you age, there are a number of steps you can take to maintain your spine health:

  1. Quit smoking. Tobacco has a significant negative effect on the healing of your spine. You tend to heal faster when you don’t smoke and the effect of the medications we use, the therapy, the injections and the surgery are all impacted by smoking.
  2. Eat a nutritious diet. Focus on vegetables, fruits, lean meats and whole grains.
  3. Take part in strength, stretch and aerobic programs to improve your fitness level, make you more resistant to injury and help speed recovery if you’re injured. For example, yoga can help you achieve core strength (abdominal wall and muscles in your back and neck) to support your spine. 
  4. Maintain an ideal body weight to relieve the pressure of extra weight on your spine.
  5. Practice good posture by standing, walking, sitting, lifting and lying in positions where the least strain is placed on supporting muscles and ligaments.
  6. Wear shoes that are well balanced, flexible and comfortable.

Bed rest is not recommended 

While it may be tempting to stay in bed when you’re in pain, it’s important to remember to stay as active as possible and avoid being in bed for several days. The weaker your muscles get, the more back pain and problems you’ll have.

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“You want to stay active and continue walking and doing your normal activities,” he says. “Then do other activities such as exercising as tolerated. Talk to your doctor before starting exercise again.”

A little preventive effort could go a long way to reducing your chances of suffering from debilitating back pain. If you do suffer from crippling back pain, there are a few treatment options available. Anti-inflammatory drug or pain relievers, physical therapy or surgery are possible treatments to help relieve your pain, according to the Arthritis Foundation. 

“Nerves, muscles and ligaments from the spine provide support to your entire body,” says Dr. Goyal. “That is why a healthy back is so important to your overall health.”​

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