Guest column: Can the aging process pre-dispose to back ailments?
The process of aging affects us all. It should come as no surprise that aging also will affect the spine. To understand how the spine is affected and what these changes mean to potential problems that might arise, it is necessary to have some familiarity with the anatomy of the spine.
The spinal column consists of 24 vertebrae extending from the upper neck (cervical) to the lower back (lumbar). Connecting the vertebrae together are the discs in front and the ligaments at the back. The discs allow for controlled movement of the spine and act as shock absorbers. There are also small joints (facets) at the back of the spine at each vertebral level.
The discs in turn are made up of two components which look similar to a jelly donut. The outer part, called the annulus, is like a strong ligament and is attached to the vertebrae above and below, holding them together. The central part of the disc is a gel-like substance consisting mainly of water (about 80 percent in the newborn), which acts as a shock absorber to the normal stresses of the spine. This very important structure is the most affected by aging, and as these changes occur, there is a cascade of events that can lead to significant disorders in the spine.
As with many parts of our body, the disc too loses water content and becomes dryer with aging, thereby reducing its resilience. This, in turn, weakens the disc with the potential for damage from everyday activities. Tears can then occur in the annulus which may be a source of pain. If the central gel squirts out through these tears, the result is a herniated disc which can pinch the adjacent nerves and cause pain in the extremities (sciatica in the legs).
In addition, the disc can lose its ability to provide controlled movement of the vertebrae which is another source of pain. When the spine is not performing normally because of these effects, the facet joints at the back of the spine become stressed with the potential to become arthritic, a further source of pain. With arthritis comes bone spurs which can enlarge and irritate the nearby nerves, also causing shooting pain down into the limbs. So the effect of aging on the spine has the potential for producing a number of painful spinal conditions.
Since the fountain of youth has yet to be discovered, we can only attempt to slow down the aging process by preventative measures. First, keep your body well hydrated. Not only will this be beneficial to many body organs, but it also will be helpful in reducing the degree of dehydration to the discs. Second, learn good body mechanics to minimize the stress to the spine. Third, practice basic spine exercises to protect the spinal structures as much as possible, such as core strengthening for the lower back. And finally, if you become aware of your neck or back reacting to even normal activities, seek professional advice to accurately diagnose and treat the cause of the problem, prevent further deterioration and thereby reduce the impact of the aging process.
Dr. Stanley Gertzbein is affiliated with Aspen Valley Hospital as well as being on the Faculties of the University of Colorado and the University of Texas. He is a spine surgeon specializing in the conservative care of patients with neck and back conditions.
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