Natural aging causes the spine’s disc to dry out and shrink somewhat. The facet joints are then closer together so that they may irritate each other. Aging may also cause the muscles and ligaments – tough bands of connective tissue-that hold the facets in place to become lax, like worn rubber bands, losing their ability to support the joints. To adapt to the laxity of the ligaments, the facet capsules either shorten or lengthen, so that the facets aren’t lined up properly. The rub together roughly, not smoothly. The cartilage coating each joint then becomes worn and rough. Pain from worn facets can travel to the leg. However it’s usually a deep aching that’s hard to pinpoint.
* Twisting beyond the normal range of the spinal vertebrae can cause the capsule around the facet joint to get caught and nipped or bruised.
* Curving your lower back inward (swayback) can irritate worn facet joints by bringing them close together.
* Wearing high heels tends to exaggerate the curve in your back and can cause pain and damage to facets over time.
What You Can Do
You can slow the aging of your facet joints by being sure that your spine is in good alignment and your muscles are in balance. The keys to keeping your back healthy and pain-free are:
* exercise for your back muscles
* good lifting techniques
* good posture
* stress management
See Dr. Clare if you experience sudden or ongoing back pain.
Spinal Degeneration, An aging Process
When you’re growing, your bones and tissues are being formed faster than they’re being depleted. After you’re grown, more tissue is being destroyed than produced this is degeneration, a normal part of the aging process.
Normal Spinal Degeneration
* Fibers of the annulus, a disc’s outer cartilage cushion, begin to wear out, like the tread on a tire.
* The disc nucleus – the soft center-begins to dry out.
* The body loses some ability to lubricate the facet joints linking your vertebrae, which begin to show wear and tear.
* Spinal ligaments become lax, so that they don’t support facet joints as well.
Ligaments can’t be un-stretched, but you can make up for the stretching by making the muscles of your back stronger.
* Spinal muscles can lose strength and go into spasm to protect the worn areas of the spine. You can prevent this by exercising your back muscles.
* Osteophytes, or arthritic bone spurs, begin to form above and below the disc
attachments to the vertebrae.
Degenerative diseases go beyond the normal aging process, sometimes causing severe pain. Some of these diseases run in families. If you have or are likely to get such a condition, it’s even more important to take good care of your back.
* Rheumatoid arthritis is a serious, body wide illness. It’s an inflammation of the lining of the joints, causing pain, stiffness swelling and often permanent damage to the joints.
* Osteoarthritis is the wearing away of the joint cartilage. It causes pain, stiffness and swelling.
* Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spine so that the spinal cord is compressed. It causes pain in the buttocks, thighs or calves that gets better with sitting or bending forward.
* Osteoporosis occurs in about one-third of people over 60, particularly women. Bones become thin and porous and easily injured.
Degeneration – The Good Part
There’s a good side to the way your spine ages. By the time you’re in your 60’s and 70’s, the spine has become more fixed in place and less likely to be injured. Back pain actually tends to lessen with age. And by exercising the muscles of your back to make them strong, you can add another word to your vocabulary; “regeneration,” or healing.