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Understanding Back Pain in Older Adults

In our previous article we presented staggering statistics about the percentage of the population that suffers from back pain. A study1 about back pain in older adults reported that approximately 25-33% of older adults suffer from chronic lower back pain. In this article we’ll review some causes for this to better understand back pain in older adults.

Lower Back Pain in Older Adults

Causes of Lower Back Pain

Back pain can be caused by a trauma or injury, a medical condition or can be the result of changes in the spinal structure over a long period of time. These long term effects of aging on the spine can lead to back pain in older adults.

Causes of Back Pain in Older Adults

Disc Degeneration

Looking at the spinal anatomy you’ll notice discs between each bone of the spine, or vertebrae. These discs are made of a gelatinous type material and act as shock absorbers. However, over time, the makeup of these discs can change and they can become more brittle. This degeneration of the discs can result in the development of osteoarthritis or a number of other conditions which cause back pain.

Cartilage Breakdown

In addition to changes in the discs, the cartilage that holds the spine’s facet joints together can deteriorate. This break down can lead to back pain2.

Bone Spurs

Changes in cartilage as we age can cause the bones of the spine to rub against one another. This rubbing can result in the formation of bone spurs3. These bone spurs may then cause pressure on nerves and result in back pain in older adults.

Ligament

Ligaments in your spine connect one vertebrae to another. The elastic properties of ligaments allow your spine (and body) to bend and flex. However, the composition of these ligaments also changes with the normal aging process. Over time, ligaments tend to become more brittle and lose some of their elasticity. Spinal ligaments can also thicken, resulting in a narrowing of the spinal canal4 called spinal stenosis. This stenosis can then lead to pressure on the nerves in the spinal canal resulting in back pain.

In Summary

As with the rest of our body, nearly every portion of our spine (bones, ligaments, discs, cartilage) will experience a form of degeneration with the normal aging process. However, because of the concentration of nerves in the small spaces within and around the spine, small shifts in the location of the bones, discs or other spinal structures can result in pressure on those nerves. As a result, normal aging processes can lead to back pain in older adults.

References

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information: Mindfulness meditation for the treatment of chronic low back pain in older adults: A randomized controlled pilot study by Morone, Greco, Weiner
  2. Spine-Health
  3. Columbia Spine
  4. National Center for Biotechnology Information: Natural History of the Aging Spine
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