4 Tips to Age-Proof Your Back

A more youthful spine can equal less pain and more freedom.

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Many of us have been there—you look in the mirror, and there they are: fine lines, a natural side effect of aging that happens to the best of us. You start using an anti-aging cream, and presto—those pesky lines have been significantly improved and you go about your life.

People protecting their backs from agingYoga can help your spine stay strong and supple into middle age and beyond.

It’s too bad that there isn’t a magic cream in a jar that can just as easily remedy spinal issues related to aging. Just like fine lines, sometimes, spinal conditions due to aging happen naturally over time.

Aging and Your Back

Santhosh A. Thomas, DO, MBA, interventional spine physician and staff physician in the Neurological Institute at Cleveland Clinic, explains that it’s normal for your discs and joints to deteriorate over time, adding that spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal) can also be par for the course.

The two biggest conditions brought on by aging are degenerative disc disease and arthritis, says Loren Fishman, MD, Medical Director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and an assistant professor at Columbia University Medical School Others can include a stiffening of the spinal ligaments and osteoporosis.

Degenerative disc disease, experienced by 40% of people aged 40 years and increasing to 80% for those 80 and older, centers around discs that change gradually from being mostly water to mostly fat, according to Dr. Fishman. He adds, “When it’s fat, the discs are narrower and less elastic.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that 23% of American adults have arthritis. Dr. Fishman says that it’s a condition that mainly affects the facet joints in the back of the spine. He says, “They tend to swell, which reduces range of motion, and they can impinge on the spinal nerves, causing pain and weakness,” he says.

He goes on to say that over time, ligaments around and within the spine stiffen, reducing range of motion, causing stenosis. Bone loss, or osteoporosis, is brought on by changes in hormones and other factors such as nutrition.

But all is not lost. Yes, aging is a natural process, but you can help your spine be more “youthful,” no matter how old you are. Whether you’re taking preventive measures or aiming to lessen the effects of a painful, age-related condition, you can try these top tips from our experts.

1. Practice Good Posture  

Dr. Thomas recommends using “good body mechanics,” something that can result from being mindful of your body and its posture. He says, “You can’t fight the natural aging process and genetics, but you can maximize your function by paying attention to your body.”

Dr. Fishman says that good posture can “reduce the effects of spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease and herniation, as well as the risk of a spinal fracture.”

Practicing good posture can include things like not slouching and making sure your workstation is in tip-top ergonomic shape.

Dr. Fishman has a general, effective rule of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to posture. He shares, “Whatever you’re doing, consciously try to elongate and make your spine long.”

This approach also carries over to how you pick things up. “Make sure to bend your knees when you pick up heavy things and keep your spine as vertical possible,” Dr. Fishman advises.

2. Try Yoga

As it turns out, yoga can be extremely beneficial if you’re hoping to have a healthier, more youthful spine. It hits three of Dr. Thomas’ tips for age-proofing one’s spine, which include regular exercise, maintaining flexibility, and achieving ideal body weight.

Dr. Fishman sees yoga as an age-defying activity for the spine, saying that it maintains “strength, flexibility, posture, and balance.”

Although yoga can be helpful for a variety of spinal conditions, specifically, Dr. Fishman believes it can aid arthritis pain.

He says, “The most common condition that there is no way to prevent is arthritis of the facet joints in the spine, which produces stiffness, narrowing of the spinal canal, or a pinched nerve. Yoga can reduce the effects of this condition on your life.”

Since “falls can be very injurious” as Dr. Fishman says, yoga can also help you work on balance as you age.

But there is one move that you should absolutely avoid in yoga: the well-known “Cat Cow” pose. Dr. Fishman explains, “The ‘cat’ is bad for discs—it compresses them backward. The ‘cow’ is bad if you have stenosis.”

Dr. Fishman says that if you want to learn more about yoga and its benefits for the back, visit the Yoga Injury Prevention website. Dr. Fishman has also developed a 12-minute yoga sequence that’s been proven to reverse osteoporosis.

3. Skip the Cigarettes  

Lung cancer, heart disease, diabetes, wrinkles: Is there any part of your health for whichsmoking isn’t a disaster? If you’re looking to your spine, keep looking—smoking can wreck your back and age your spine too.

Dr. Thomas asserts, “Do not smoke, as this will worsen degenerative changes over time.”

4. See Your Doctor

Preventve medicine is key if you’re hoping to keep your body healthy, youthful, and strong as the years go on, and your spine is no exception. In fact, it’s something you should do before you try anything new.

Dr. Fishman says, “Most importantly, determine if you have any spinal problems and get a diagnosis, because what is good for one condition may be bad for another.”

Dr. Thomas echoes this idea, saying, “It is natural to have some changes. Many will be asymptomatic, but some will become symptomatic. If your function is limited due to pain in your back and/or your legs, consider seeing a spine physician.”  

Updated on: 03/03/21
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Degenerative Disc Disease Prevention and Relief
Santhosh A. Thomas, DO, MBA
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