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An ageing population with ageing backs

As a very busy society, from working, looking after family and kids, exercising, socializing and being generally busy, we are often under some sort of strain in our body. This can manifest in back pain, whether it be in the older or younger population.

Back pain can have many causes; These can include:

  • Arthritis,
  • Disc bulges, or “slipped disc”,
  • Osteoporosis and
  • Muscle and ligament spasm and strain,
  • Scoliosis,
  • Sciatica
  • Poor posture to name just a few!

A large contribution of back pain in our ageing population is caused secondary to degenerative disc disease and/or osteoarthritis.

Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is a term used to describe normal changes in your spinal discs as you age. It is not in fact a disease, but a natural process of ageing. The spinal discs are compressible shock absorbers and are found between each vertebra that makes up our spine. The discs allow the spine to bend, flex and twist easily. Degeneration of these discs can occur in the neck, upper back, and most commonly in the lower back. There will be gradual loss of normal structure and function of the spine over time from DDD.

These changes include:

  • Loss of fluid in the discs. This can decrease height of the discs, narrowing the distance between each vertebrae. It also decreases their ‘bounciness’, meaning they absorb less shock when compressed and become less stable.
  • Small cracks of tears can form in the outside layer of the disc. This weakens the outer fibers allowing it’s jellylike fluid inside to push out, causing disc bulges or “slipped discs”.

Although degenerative discs may not cause pain directly, changes in the discs can also lead to:

  • Osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease. The cartilage that protects and cushions the joints degenerates from “wear and tear”. Osteoarthritis is the most common chronic condition of the joints, affecting people most commonly people older than 65. Though disc degeneration may predispose you to osteoarthritis in your spine, osteoarthritis also occurs in knees, hips and the small joints in fingers. Osteoarthritis can cause pain, stiffness, swelling and restricted movement and associated muscle spasm.
  • Herniated discs – Abnormal bulge that can put pressure on nerves and muscle spasm causing referred pain.
  • Spinal Stenosis – The narrowing of the spinal canal which holds the spinal cord which can effect the surrounding nerves and muscles.

However it is a common misconception that degeneration of the spine always causes pain! At least 30% of people, both men and women, aged 30-50 years old, will some degree of disc degeneration visible on CT or MRI imaging, though not all will have pain.

And, once we reach the age of 60, it is considered normal to find degeneration in both the discs and the spine, much like those grey hairs that keep popping up and other hormonal changes that can occur with ageing!

It is important for people to know that the amount of pain does not necessarily correlate to the amount of damage in the spine. It is interesting to note that people may experience little to no pain, even though they have severely degenerated discs and discs with little degeneration may produce severe pain.

Although degeneration may be unavoidable due to one’s family history, occupation, life circumstance or other variables, there are ways of managing and slowing further degenerative changes.

  • Strength training can help stabilise and support the spine. Done correctly, it will allow for optimal activation of muscles to allow safe and minimally painful movement.
  • Ensure proper lifting techniques.
  • Correct desk ergonomics at home and in the workplace.
  • Optimal general health, exercise and a balanced diet. Carrying extra load and kilos can place extra stresses through your back.
  • Regular treatment by your healthcare practitioner to help maintain a strong, mobile back.
  • Natural supplements such as high quality fish oils, magnesium, glucosamine and chondroitin, calcium and Vitamin D.

If you are suffering from back pain, please contact us at St Kilda Osteopathy and we can help look after your back pain or help manage the discomforts associated with degeneration in the joints and spine!

Dr. Catriona BauldB.Sci (Clin.Sci), M.H.S.(Osteo)
Member of Osteopathy Australia


Categories: Arthtitis, Common Conditions, General Information, Pain Relief