Let’s count them up. In our spines, we have 26 bone disks, or vertebrae. When you add to that a few decades (or more) of life, our chances for back pain really stack up – so it’s no wonder the World Health Organization estimates that 60 to 70 percent of us will experience lower back pain as we age. The truth, which is no surprise, is that along with aging comes wear and tear in all our joints; our vertebrae are not immune. And degenerative spine is the most common cause of that back pain in older adults.
Deciphering Degenerative Spine
Degenerative spine is a condition that doesn’t actually affect the bones themselves, but rather the cushions of cartilage between them. Over time, this cartilage deteriorates – and when our joints are less cushioned, we experience pain and can develop bone spurs, which are caused by bone rubbing against bone. If that sounds like osteoarthritis, that’s because it is. Degenerative spine is another term for osteoarthritis of the spine, and more than 50% of adults over the age of 65 suffer from it.
In addition to pain, the inflammation and joint damage from degenerative spine can cause:
- Loss of function, range of motion, and flexibility
- Reduced strength and stamina, which can discourage exercise and cause weight gain
- Pinched nerve pain, weakness, or numbness, caused by bone spurs
While most older adults will experience some degree of degenerative spine as they age, there are a variety of risk factors that can contribute to whether you are more at risk:
- Advancing age. Degenerative spine is a condition in which joints along the spine degenerate over time.
- A family history of the condition. If your parents or other close family members have lived with degenerative spine, you are at greater risk.
- Obesity or being overweight. Being overweight causes extra strain – and extra wear-and-tear damage – for all our joints, even our vertebrae.
- Nutritional deficits. Studies suggest, but don’t yet prove, a possible link between poor diet and degenerative spine.
Here’s What You Can Do About It
There is not yet a cure for degenerative spine, but there are steps you can take to stave it off and maintain your quality of life if you do find yourself feeling its aches and pains:
- Exercise. Though it’s hard to motivate ourselves to exercise when we’re in pain, doing so can help alleviate it by releasing endorphins, lubricating joints, and strengthening our muscles, which can provide support to our joints and reduce pain over the long term.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Doing so will reduce the stress on your joints and possibly slow the progression of the condition.
- Eat right. Be sure you’re eating a healthy diet full of more natural and less processed foods that are high in calcium, like dairy, or that help reduce inflammation and boost cartilage health, like cherries, red peppers, and salmon.
- Treat your pain. In the early stages of degenerative spine, you may find relief with over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and naproxen.
If you try these measures at home and still find yourself suffering with the pain and stiffness of degenerative spine, your physician may be able to prescribe alternative medications and can discuss additional options, like surgical treatments or supportive braces, with you.
Dr. Kim is a board-certified Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation specialist at Kelsey-Seybold’s Berthelsen Main Campus, Pasadena Clinic, and Summer Creek Clinic. His clinical interests include spine and musculoskeletal medicine. Dr. Kim offers various forms of conservative and noninvasive treatment options to help his patients achieve independence in managing their illnesses.