The Aging Spine
A normal part of aging process involves the deterioration of tissues, especially those of the spine. This deterioration occurs with all individuals over time. The degree of the deterioration varies from individual to individual. The reasons for this are not fully clear; however, it seems that a history of spinal stress and abuse (such as years of hard labour or years of prolonged sitting) as well as inadequate spinal hygiene (lack of periodic spinal checkups) accelerates this deterioration process.
The Intervertebral Disc
The intervertebral disc (the cartilaginous pad situated between the spinal vertebrae) is one of the spinal structures most affected by the deterioration process. Normally, movements of the torso draw water into the disc which results in the influx of nutrients essential to maintaining a healthy disc. Similarly, torsal movements assist in flushing out waste products from the disc. This constant movement of water into and out of the disc is what keeps the disc strong and healthy.
As we age, the tissues of the disc fibrose and become stiff. This fibrosis and stiffening reduces the ability of the disc to accept and eliminate water, and thus, to obtain vital nutrients and eliminate noxious wastes. Individuals who subject their spines to prolonged stress, have had at least one back/neck/spinal injury, and who do not practice proper spinal hygiene significantly accelerate this process. This "dehydration" of the disc is often visible on x-ray as a loss of disc height, which is identified by a reduction in the distance between adjacent vertebrae. As the disc becomes dehydrated it also tends to bulge outwards, like a tire without adequate air. If severe enough, the bulging disc can compress or irritate nearby spinal nerve roots.
As the discs of the spine undergo these arthritic changes, the biomechanics of the spine are also changed. If the failing spinal biomechanics are left untreated, further degenerative changes occur. Other structures affected by the degenerative processes as well as the alteration in spinal biomechanics include the body of the vertebrae as well as the facet joints.
Facet Joint and Vertebral Body Arthritis
Calcium is deposited both in the margins of the vertebral bodies and in the facet joints. Over time, the calcium ossifies, which causes stiffness and loss of function in the tissue. This is seen on an x-ray as "lipping" and "spurring" and enlargement of the edges of the vertebral bodies as well as facet joints. Frequently, these arthritic spinal changes lead to back and neck pain and stiffness, and are also responsible for extremity pain such as shooting pain down the back of the leg. This commonly results from the bony compression or irritation of spinal nerve roots. In essence, relatively small spinal problems can snowball into serious spinal problems later in life.
Chiropractic Treatments May Help
Chiropractic treatments (also known as adjustments) maintain motion in the spine which is vital to the health of the discs, joints and other tissues. Adjustments also optimize spinal biomechanics to minimize the stresses associated with the degenerative changes that occur with age. Your spine can be viewed much like any other moving structure in that the better you treat and maintain it, the longer it will freely operate problem free. If you abuse it or don't properly maintain it, it will wear out and break down more rapidly.