You’re 50-plus and feeling the clichéd aches and pains like most other seniors — and you want to know: Is it just in your mind, or is there a physiological reason for age-related back pain?
Not only is there one physiological reason — there are four.
Here, Dr. Bryan King and Dr. Jeffrey Cuomo, our highly trained and experienced specialists at Tuscaloosa Orthopedic & Joint Institute in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, explain the connection between advancing age and back pain to help you recognize the signs and know when to seek treatment.
Why getting older is a pain in the back
Like your car, toaster, and cellphone, your body slows down with age. Parts weaken and wear out and have trouble functioning as they did in your youth. It’s normal to feel general aches and pains now and then as your mind asks your body to act like you’re in your 20s.
Even as we explain “4 Reasons Getting Older Hurts Your Back,” the factors that cause back pain as you age are legion. Here’s a partial list:
- Prolonged sitting
- Weak core muscles
- Excess weight
- Poor sleep quality
- Long-term effects of smoking
You may also have grandchildren and find the joy of lifting them into your arms a small price to pay for the muscle strain required.
However, some physiological factors and musculoskeletal issues also contribute to back pain as you age.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common of the 100-plus kinds of arthritis. It can attack any joint in your body, including your spine. Specifically, it occurs in the facet joints that connect your vertebrae.
The hallmark characteristic of OA is the breakdown of cartilage inside the joints. Once the slippery protective cartilage wears away, your bones rub against each other and cause pain, inflammation, and stiffness.
Because OA is, by definition, a wear-and-tear disc problem, so aging is a big factor. Studies show that of the nearly 55.5 million American adults who have OA, 88% are 45 or older, and 43% are 65 or older.
2. Herniated discs
Herniated discs — when the soft center of your vertebral disc pushes through the hard outer shell and compresses nearby nerves — can happen to anyone at any age, but you’re more likely to experience it when you’re older.
Although a hard fall and other forceful traumatic events can compact and damage your discs, it doesn’t take an accident to herniate an old disc. All it takes is a weakened annulus (the outer shell) to allow the nucleus (the inner gel-like substance) to bulge out and cause pain.
Depending on the nerve affected, you may feel weakness and tingling in your legs and feet.
Aging discs become drier and more brittle over time, making herniated discs more common among seniors.
3. Spinal stenosis
Another problem that occurs when your discs degenerate is that they crowd your spinal cord and press on the bundles of nerves that run through the spinal canal. We call this narrowing condition spinal stenosis, and it happens to many older adults: 20% of people 60 and over.
Aging discs and spinal stenosis often go hand in hand with another common age-related back problem called degenerative spondylolisthesis, where a spinal disc slides forward and out of alignment with one below it.
4. Compression fractures
Bones become brittle with age, so it’s not hard to imagine that they can break easily. Osteoporosis, a disease that weakens your bones and makes them more porous, complicates the problem.
Old bones, especially those riddled with osteoporosis, can break under the mildest circumstances, like sneezing and coughing.
The bones in your spine are particularly vulnerable to osteoporosis and compression fractures. Menopausal women have yet another contributing factor since low estrogen affects bone density.
If getting older is doing a number on your back, call Tuscaloosa Orthopedic & Joint Institute to schedule an appointment with our specialists. We offer the most advanced treatments using state-of-the-art technology so you can age without back pain.