How to Take Care of Your Spine as You Age
The human spine is a complex anatomic structure, made up of discs and joints that, like the hinges on a cabinet, can become worn with time. While a physician may use potentially worrying terms such as “arthritis” or “degeneration” to describe the changes in your joints, these are a normal part of the aging process.
The normal wear and tear of aging may not always produce symptoms. But you may experience pain with movement when the changes cause structures in the neck or back to compress your spinal cord.
Other common signs of spinal cord wear and tear may be tingling, numbness, weakness, or shooting pain that spreads to the hands.
If you experience painful symptoms, you may want to visit your primary care doctor who will prescribe anti-inflammatory medication or give you a referral to begin physical therapy. If symptoms persist or worsen, you might need to see a spine surgeon.
Correlating Symptoms with Spine Images
Spine surgeons at Marina del Rey Hospital see hundreds of people a year suffering from a wide range of spinal disorders, from whiplash to herniated discs.
In your initial evaluation, a physician will review your X-rays or MRIs and perform a physical exam. Your doctor will try to match your symptoms with the abnormal areas on imaging.
For example, if you experience ongoing or unexplained pain that radiates into your hand or sensory problems, your physician may establish that there’s likely damage to a neck vertebra. However, the abnormalities in imaging aren’t always the cause of symptoms.
Non-Surgical Treatment Options
Spine surgeons will evaluate, diagnose and treat you when you suffer from neck pain and back pain. However, they don’t operate until all non-surgical options have been exhausted. In fact, the overwhelming majority of spine problems don’t need surgery.
Physicians treat problems with the spine in a non-surgical, conservative fashion. Treatment starts with anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy, and, if necessary, pain management. Your doctor might also recommend you continue treatment with a physiatrist.
Most people recover from spine pain after physical therapy. But if your symptoms are persistent and you need to return to the surgeon, the next steps can be taken.
Surgical Approaches to the Spine
When your doctors exhaust all nonoperative options and you still experience symptoms, such as difficulty with bowel or bladder function, gait problems, or pain with weakness, then your doctor will start to consider surgery.
Spine surgery is recommended if you have been suffering from symptoms for a month or more. Likewise, you are eligible for surgery when you suffer from a severe disc herniation, and may risk paralysis, or other serious conditions.
A multidisciplinary team of doctors and specialists, such as spine surgeons, physical therapists, physiatrists, and pain specialists will collaborate to get you back to your life as quickly as possible.
Also, if you suffer from hypertension or diabetes, and complications crop up as your spinal condition is being treated, you can access resources that can address these complications.
Keep Your Spine Healthy by Knowing Your Limits
The best advice a doctor will give you is to understand and respect your limits. Our spines change throughout our lives, so we must listen to our bodies more and do the things we can handle for our age.
Realistically, what are the types of activities and levels of intensity you can do given your age and current level of conditioning?
Your physician will advise you that to avoid injuries you should strengthen your core muscles, which include the lower back, hips, and abdomen. These are the muscles that work together to keep your body balanced.
Also, you should use proper technique when performing high-intensity movements or modify them and use lighter weights to lower intensity. If you work in an office, it is also important to customize your workspace to avoid muscle imbalances and repetitive injuries.
If you had to give up an important activity because of back pain, you should seek consultation from a spine expert to explore the best way forward. In many cases, certain activities can be reclaimed responsibly, and you could get back to the activities you love.