Tips on how seniors can avoid back and neck pain
An aging body means that the spine is aging too. But while certain spinal disorders are more common in older adults, there are more ways than ever to prevent back and neck pain and protect your aging spine, says Kaliq Chang, MD.
Approximately 54.1 million Americans – 16% of the population – were 65 or older in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Aging Administration. And that age group is only going to increase, with seniors projected to make up nearly 22% of Americans by 2040.
It is true that the likelihood of back and neck pain increases with age, just because bones, joints, and muscles gradually break down. But seniors are not powerless at the mercy of these effects and can proactively defend themselves by building strength and practicing thoughtful habits.
“If you have accurate information about your body and lifestyle, you can avoid the negative effects of aging on your spine, too,” explains Dr. Chang, a specialist in interventional pain management.
Common age-related spine problems
Which spinal diseases are increasing in older adults?
Arthritis: So-called “wear and tear” arthritis – known medically as osteoarthritis – can also occur in the joints of the spine. With three joints between each pair of bony vertebrae, it makes sense that some would wear out over time.
Vertebral fractures caused by osteoporosis: Bone-weakening osteoporosis occurs much more frequently after the age of 65 with decreasing bone density. This can lead to brittle vertebrae that break more easily and put the health of your spine at risk.
Disc prolapse: The gel-like discs that are between each pair of vertebrae can flatten out with age as they lose water content. This process can cause the intervertebral discs to protrude or break and press painfully on the spinal nerves.
Spondylolisthesis: The entire spine can become dangerously unstable, increasing the risk of back injuries if a single vertebra slips, known as spondylolisthesis. Older adults are more prone to the condition as ligaments and other connective tissue weaken and lose elasticity over time.
Spinal canal stenosis: This condition, which puts pressure on the nerves around the spinal cord, is characterized by narrowing of the spine and often results from injury or arthritis.
Tips for protecting your neck and back
Obviously, aging isn’t a process we can stop, but there is a lot you can do to strengthen your back and neck to keep age-related spinal diseases from getting worse.
To build strength and avoid back and neck pain:
Move your body: Consistent physical activity – be it a formal exercise program or daily exercise like brisk walking – can strengthen the back and neck muscles while relieving muscle tension and inflammation. “Injuries aren’t that likely when you have a strong core,” notes Dr. Chang.
Lift up carefully: This age-old advice is still great. Lift heavy objects by bending your knees, not your waist. This small optimization of the lifting technique puts a lot less strain on the back and neck muscles. Also, do not twist yourself when lifting and, whenever possible, push heavy objects instead of pulling them.
Watch your weight: There are many good reasons to avoid excess pounds, but an increase – especially in the middle – puts strain on the back and neck muscles by shifting the center of gravity.
Practice intelligent posture: While sitting, position your knees a little higher than your hips and choose chairs with a straight or lower back. As you walk, keep your head up, shoulders back, and tighten your abs.
Skip the smoke: Back and neck health – like your general health – never benefits from smoking. “This harmful habit also reduces the flow of important nutrients to the intervertebral discs, making smokers particularly prone to back and neck problems,” says Dr. Chang.
Pack problematic bags: Look for purses, tote bags, and briefcases with wide, adjustable straps that can be worn at an angle. These messenger style bags help distribute the weight of the bag more evenly and reduce pressure and strain on the neck and shoulder muscles.
If, despite careful preventive measures, you develop back or neck pain in old age, Dr. Chang to see a spine specialist to find out about your diagnostic and treatment options.
“Treatment is usually at home and / or minimally invasive, including medication, steroid injections, or physical therapy,” he says. “Surgery is rarely necessary.”
By Kaliq Chang, MD, an interventional pain management panel, certified in anesthesiology at the Atlantic Spine Center, www.atlanticspinecenter.com
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