Spine Problems In Elderly

Spine problems in elderly people are one of the most common causes of back pain in the elderly. There are a few things that are almost guaranteed as you age, and spine degeneration is one of them. 

This is a frustrating part of getting older, because while you have more time on your hands than ever, you find yourself in too much pain to do things you used to enjoy, like working in your garden, taking a walk, Tai Chi for seniors, playing with your kids/grandkids, etc.

So, why does the spine start to break down as we age? And can anything be done to prevent it?

We’ll answer all this, and cover some of the most common spine conditions the elderly experience. At the end of this article, we’ll give you some of our favorite home remedies for managing the pain of spine issues, along with some professional care options for if the pain becomes too severe to manage. Finally, we’ll touch on spinal surgery and whether or not we recommend it to the elderly community.

Before we get into all this, we need to start with an anatomy lesson on your back to help you understand why your spine breaks down with age.

Anatomy of the spine

The spine is a really complex structure, and this is why so many things can go wrong in your back. We can divide the spine into three sections: the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine. Each of these three sections is composed of individual bones, called vertebrae.

Each vertebrae has its own components. There are discs between each one, which serve as shock absorbers and prevent the vertebrae from rubbing against one another, as this would cause rapid deterioration of the bones. These are filled with a jelly-like center, which acts as lubricant for our spine. There are also joints in each vertebrae, which allow for some play in our spine rather than create a rigid, immobile structure.

At the top end of the spine is the spinal cord, which connects to our brain. At the bottom end, the spine connects to our pelvis, or more specifically, the sacrum.

What happens to the spine as we age?

We like to compare the human body to a vehicle. For the first 100,000 miles you own a car, you can usually get away with just routine maintenance, and the occasional flat tire or one-off repair. But for the most part, everything works as it should.

As your car gets older and develops more wear and tear, however, more things start to go wrong. Once you get into the 150,000 mile range and above, bigger and more expensive repairs accumulate, and the reliable car you once owned is now a heap that causes nothing but trouble.

Our bodies are the same way. Many people can get through their 40’s, and even their 50’s, with little to know health problems. But, as you get into your elderly years, health issues can arise no matter how well you take care of yourself. The spine in particular becomes more susceptible to injury, and can even break down on its own without you doing anything to cause it.

What specifically goes wrong with the spine in elderly people?

If you want to get specific, the discs in your vertebrae start to deteriorate. We mentioned earlier that these sort of act like shocks, protecting individual vertebrae. Well, eventually, the discs break down to the point where individual vertebrae start to rub against one another, breaking each other down. This is where back pain starts to develop, and where the door opens for bigger spine problems in elderly people.

What age does your spine start to degenerate?

When it comes to degenerative spine problems in elderly, there is no set timetable on when it starts.

However, research shows that the probability of disc degeneration increases greatly after the age of 40, with it becoming more and more likely with each passing year.

Common spine problems in elderly

There are all kinds of spine problems that can affect elderly people. These include spinal fractures, arthritis, stenosis, hernias, and more. 

Spinal fractures

Whether caused by osteoporosis or a fall/other injury, spinal fractures are one of the more common spine problems in elderly. Most commonly, it is a vertebrae that gets fractured.

Osteoporosis related fractures are more common in women, and can develop after menopause. In this specific spine bone disorder, your bone mass disintegrated quicker than you’re able to rebuild it. This leads to weak, fragile bones, where fractures can occur without any real cause.

On the other hand, your spine just becomes more weak as you age, like we discussed above. Because of this, a small fall, car accident, or other injury can easily cause a spinal fracture.

The good news is that in most cases, spinal fractures resolve themselves within a few weeks to a few months. The pain from this spine problem is described as constant, nagging pain in your back.

Spinal arthritis

Disc degeneration can lead to spinal arthritis, which is an incredibly painful condition caused by bone-on-bone contact. After a period of time, spinal arthritis can actually turn into spinal stenosis, which we will cover in a moment.

Unfortunately, arthritis is a progressive disease, and there is no cure. But, if you work with your doctor or physical therapist, you can manage the pain and discomfort it causes.

And, you can slow the degeneration of the bones caused by arthritis through effective treatment. We’ll cover treatment more in depth later on.

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal, squeezing the nerves in your spine. You can imagine how painful this is. But the pain is not just limited to your back.

Spinal stenosis can cause sciatic pain, which is felt in your legs. The pain from this condition is usually only alleviated by sitting or lying down, and it flares back up quickly upon standing or walking.

Just like arthritis, home remedies and professional care can be combined to minimize the pain and discomfort felt from spinal stenosis. But, it is a condition you will just have to try and get comfortable with, as it likely won’t go away.

Herniated discs

Another possible spine problem in elderly people is herniated discs. These become increasingly common after age 50, as the discs start degenerating more rapidly, they can burst.

When they burst, they cause pain at the actual disc that ruptured, but also in any surround areas the disc bursts into. There are nerves all around these discs, and that’s where much of the pain comes from.

Herniated discs can also cause sciatic pain, similar to stenosis with many people wondering  how long does sciatica last?  Those with severely ruptured discs may even experience a loss of bladder or bowel movement. This is a tough spine problem for elderly people to recover from, and often times may require surgery to repair. This is one of the few spine problems that may warrant surgery, assuming the pain becomes unbearable, as the surgery can result in dramatic relief.

How to prevent spine problems in elderly

Unfortunately, not a whole lot can be done to prevent spine problems in the elderly. As we discussed, spine degeneration is just an inevitable part of aging.

Of course, there are certain things you can do to decrease your likelihood, such as taking good care of your back throughout your whole life.

Regular, safe exercise, performing upper back stretches and lower back too and staying mobile is the best way to prevent spine problems from arising. But, even this is not a surefire way to prevent them altogether.

Luckily, we have some tips for treating back pain caused by spine problems. Of course, if your ailment doesn’t resolve quickly or starts to get work, you should see a doctor or professional.

Treatment for spine problems in elderly

When first enduring your spine problem, you may try and manage your pain and undergo a home treatment regimen. This can be all it takes to heal your spine, or at the very least, manage your symptoms.

But at a certain point, you may need to seek professional treatment for your spine issue. We will cover options for you in that case, but let’s start with home treatment.

Home remedies to alleviate pain

To begin any home treatment for spine problems, take an assessment of your ergonomic positioning. Make sure you sleep, sit, and lift in proper positions, otherwise your condition will just worsen.

One of the simplest things you can do to treat your back pain or spine problem from home is resting. With most injuries or conditions, at least a day or two of bed rest is ordered, to allow the healing process to begin. You can be icing during this time, and after a few days, switch to heat.

At the same time, you should start moving and getting your blood flowing. You don’t necessarily need to hit the gym (although a pool is a great place to start your recovery, with water aerobics).

Even just taking a walk around the neighborhood, or doing some mid back stretches is a good start. You don’t want to go too crazy for a while, you’re just trying to move blood to the injury to help the healing process.

As you get better, and pain allows, you can start doing core strengthening exercises to protect your spine. A weak core is often the culprit for spinal injuries, especially in the elderly.

Try to avoid taking over the counter drugs for pain, but during the initial healing phase, you can take antiinflammatories as needed. Look to painkillers as an emergency option only, for your most painful days.

But, what if pain doesn’t subside, or rather, gets worse?

Professional care options for spine problems in elderly

If pain or debilitation lasts longer than a few weeks, or starts getting worse, you may want to seek professional care.

This doesn’t have to be a medical doctor, however. There are likely better options to start with, such as a chiropractor or physical therapist.

Chiropractors are experts in manipulating the spine, and can help diagnose your problem. They can adjust your spine back into the proper position, and many people experience significant improvements in their symptoms.

Another option is physical therapy, which involves treating the affected area through massage, stretching, and exercise. Your physical therapist will come up with a treatment/recovery plan based on your specific problem.

There are more alternative methods you can try, such as acupuncture, but these are usually better for muscle related pain, rather than spinal injuries.

Spine surgery – does it make sense in elderly people?

If you have been to a doctor for your spinal pain, it is very likely that the topic of surgery came up. Most often, we do not recommend spine surgery for anyone, let alone the elderly.

Not only is it incredibly expensive, with average surgeries ranging well above 6 figure, but it is also very difficult to recover from.

In fact, spine surgery in your old age can open the door for problems such as infection, extreme muscle atrophy, and more.

Plus, the recovery from a surgery of this nature in your elderly years is going to take a serious toll on your mental health, along with your overall well being. You’ll likely spend weeks, if not months, recovering in bed. Is this really how you want to spend your retirement?

Odds are, it is not. So, we encourage you to try some of the home remedies we recommended. If these do not generate the results you are looking for, one of the professional care options will definitely help. 

These professionals will be able to come up with a treatment plan tailored to your specific spine problem, and can help you work through your treatment to get the best results.

Surgery should be seen as a last case scenario, and only for certain spine problems, such as hernias. Oftentimes, it is simply more trouble than it is worth.

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Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

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