“As the body ages, the spine takes on additional pressure and wear,” said Dr. Pierre Bruneau, an orthopedic surgeon at CareMount Medical. “But while these conditions increase among seniors, medical innovations are making it easier to prevent and treat back pain.”
Dr. Monica Gupta, an endocrinologist with CareMount Medical who also treats osteoporosis, explained how certain injuries develop over time:
Herniated discs: When the gel-like discs between each spinal vertebra lose water over time, they are more likely to flatten and become herniated. This misalignment places pressure on spinal nerves and can cause leg pain.
Spondylolisthesis: This condition occurs when a vertebra slips out of place, causing the entire spinal column to become unstable and increasing the chance of back injury.
Facet joint arthritis: Arthritis is the most common cause of joint pain. This joint erosion is inevitable in some joints because of the frequent pressure on the spine during everyday life.
Spinal stenosis: Due to arthritis or other injuries, the spinal column narrows and places pressure on the highly sensitive nerves of the spinal cord. This can cause discomfort, leg pain, leg heaviness and difficulty walking.
Additionally, “many seniors develop frail vertebrae from weakening conditions such as osteoporosis," said Gupta. "This condition puts patients at a greater risk of sustaining a vertebral compression fracture without significant trauma.”
While some injuries are unavoidable, Gupta and Burneau explained how to build strength and prevent back pain:
Maintain a healthy weight: Extra pounds, particularly around the middle of the body, can put pressure on the lower back. “Staying within 10 pounds of your ideal weight is the goal, and may help control back pain,” said Burneau.
Exercise: Regular physical activity can not only ease muscle tension and inflammation, but strengthen back muscles. “A strong core helps you to place less strain on the spine, making injuries less likely to occur," said Bruneau.
Practice good posture: When sitting, keep your knees higher than your hips and look for chairs with a straight back. When walking, keep your head perpendicular to the ground and engage your abdominal muscles.
Don’t smoke: Smoking doesn't promote physical well-being as a whole, and back health is no exception. “Smoking lessens the flow of nutrients to spinal discs, so smokers are especially susceptible to spinal conditions,” said Gupta.
Lift carefully: Always lift heavy or bulky objects by bending at the knees, not at the waist and avoid twisting.
“Older adults can protect themselves by staying educated about common conditions that lead to back problems," said Bruneau. "With knowledge about how to care for their backs, seniors can keep themselves as comfortable and mobile as possible."
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