Your spine has an important job – it supports your body, helps you stay upright and allows you to safely move and change positions. It also protects the nerves that run through your spinal cord – the ones that send messages from your brain to the rest of your body. The bony parts of your spine are called vertebrae, with the largest vertebrae being in the lumbar region at the base of your spine, since this is the part that bears the most weight. Each vertebra has two facet joints that support movement, yet restrict excessive motion that could be damaging to the spinal cord.
Between the bony vertebrae lie intervertebral discs that cushion the vertebrae and protect them from damage by acting as shock absorbers. These discs are made up of water, proteoglycans, and collagen and have a soft, gel-like interior. The vertebrae and discs encase and protect the spinal cord and the nerves that run through it. For even greater protection of the spinal cord, the bony vertebrae are encased by ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Vertebrae are divided into regions – cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral – based on where they are on the spinal cord. The cervical vertebrae that run through your neck are the most mobile, making them susceptible to injury.
Running next to your spine are muscles called paraspinal muscles. This group of deep muscles adds additional support to the spine while allowing movements such as flexion and extension. Sometimes paraspinal muscles tighten in response to overuse, poor posture, or sudden movements and lead to painful back spasms.
Loss of Bone Density and Compression Fractures
Since you depend on your spine to keep you upright and mobile, keeping it healthy is a priority. As with most tissues and organs in your body, your spine changes as you age. One change that happens is the loss of bone density, a situation that when severe leads to osteoporosis involving the spine. When bones weaken and become less dense, you can develop compression fracture. Such fractures may be “silent,” causing vague symptoms or no symptoms at all.
Despite being relatively painless, compression fractures in the upper spine can lead to the hunched over posture, you see in some older people called a dowager’s hump. You can also lose a significant amount of height due to “silent” osteoporosis and compression fractures. Some compression fractures DO cause pain, significant amounts of it. That’s why it’s important to build bone density during adolescence and early adulthood and preserve it as much as possible as you age through exercise and nutrition. A compression fracture takes 6 to 8 weeks to heal and may require surgery and a back brace.
Loss of Height
Osteoporosis often leads to a significant loss of height, but even if you DON’T have osteoporosis, you lose height over time. If you’re 5 feet tall, that might not be what you wanted to hear. In fact, you lose about four-tenths of an inch in height every decade after the age of 40. Why does this happen?
The intervertebral discs that cushion the vertebrae in your spine lose water and the vertebrae become compressed. This degree of height loss (about a half inch per decade) is a normal part of aging, but if you experience a greater loss of height, you may have compression fractures in your spine due to osteoporosis. That’s why you should closely monitor your height after the age of 40. If you lose more than a half-inch per decade, it’s a red flag that merits further evaluation.
After the age of 60, bone spurs, bony growths on the vertebrae of the spine, become quite common. You can see these spurs on x-rays and MRI, but they don’t typically cause symptoms unless they become large enough to push on a nerve root in the spine. These spurs represent degenerative changes to the spine and are common in people with osteoarthritis, but usually, don’t require treatment unless they cause symptoms.
Protecting Your Spine as You Age
A combination of diet, nutrition, and a healthy lifestyle are your best defense against osteoporosis and compression fractures. Eating a variety of whole foods, including lots of leafy greens and fresh fruits and vegetables, helps preserve bone health. Make sure you’re getting adequate quantities of calcium and vitamin D, as well as vitamin K2 and magnesium, all of which contribute to healthy bones. Don’t engage in unhealthy habits like smoking, which also increases your risk for osteoporosis and dries out the discs in your spine, making them a less effective cushion.
Watch your body weight. Being overweight or obese, especially around the tummy, places excess stress on your spine. A protruding tummy throws off the alignment of your spine and exaggerates the curvature of your back, increasing the load your spine has to handle. Being overweight or obese increases your risk for degenerative disc disease, damage to the discs between each vertebra that cushions and protects it. Damaged discs are more likely to herniate or rupture, placing pressure on nerves in the spinal cord, leading to back pain, weakness, and numbness in the leg. If you’re lucky, it will heal in 6 months. If not, surgery may be the only alternative.
Finally, strengthen your core through strength training. Strengthening the muscles that support your abdomen and spine is one of the most effective ways to keep your spine healthy. Work on your posture and learn proper lifting technique so you don’t place excess stress on your back when you pick things up. When you lift weights, focus on keeping your spine neutral, not rounding your back, when doing exercises like squats and deadlifts.
The Bottom Line
A healthy spine not only supports the rest of your body and helps you move properly, it protects the nerves that run between your brain and the rest of your body. As a result, an unhealthy spine can affect all aspects of your health. Take care of it!
MedLine Plus. “Aging changes in the bones – muscles – joints”
MedLine Plus. “Compression Fractures of the Back”
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