Back Pain and Your Age - What's the Connection?


Back Pain and Your Age

Kyphoplasty illustration
Kyphoplasty illustration. BSIP/UIG/Collection:Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Many people harbor misconceptions about advancing age as a risk factor for back pain.  While it’s true that and elderly people are at a higher risk for painful spinal compression fractures due to osteoporosis, the relationship between age and back pain risk is not always linear. 

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Instead, it tends to be more about what’s going on and when.


Back Injury During the Prime of Life

Golf swing
Golf swing. Multi-bits/Collection:StoneMax/Getty Images

The most active time in a person’s life is generally from ages 30 to 50. So it stands to reason that between working, taking care of kids and engaging in fitness or sports activities, you are at a higher risk of a neck or back injury during these decades.  And of course, sustaining an injury will likely involve pain.  

A common spine injury during the prime of life is herniated disc.  It’s common because the disc is still pretty much full of water (which is what gives it shock absorbing power.)  When the outer fibers of the disc tear or rupture, the liquid-filled center may squirt out and land on a nearby spinal nerve root, causing compression, irritation and, of course, pain and other symptoms.

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Back Pain Starting at Age 50

Xray image of arthritic spine.
Arthritis is one cause of cervical radiculopathy. CNRI/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

After age 50 or so, activity intensity, and therefore injury risk, decreases. 

But decreasing your risk for back pain after the age of 50 is not that simple. For most people in the later stages of life, degenerative changes in the body can be more pronounced, and may, in a number of ways, contribute to deterioration of one or more areas of the spine.

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A senior woman exercises her back using a resistance band.
A senior woman exercises her back using a resistance band. MartinaOsmey

A big one is muscle mass decrease, also called sarcopenia.  Although you may not notice it, sarcopenia begins at about age 30, and continues throughout life.  When you lose muscle mass, you lose strength; Marcell, in his study entitled, “Review Article: Sarcopenia: Causes, Consequences, and Preventions,” published in the May 2003 issue of the Journal of Gerontology found that reductions occur in many of the body’s physiological systems at about 2% per year, and that several of these systemic changes contribute to muscle loss.

And according to Doherty, in his report, “Invited Review: Aging and sarcopenia,” which was published in the October 2003 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology, people in their 70s and 80s on average will have lost 20 to 40% of their original ability to voluntarily contract their muscles to the max.  This is true for both men and women, Doherty says.

The good news is that you can pretty much counter most or all of the effects of sacropenia if you exercise regularly. Learn more about this fix on the last slide of this article.


Degenerative Disc Disease

Depiction of disc herniation causing central canal stenosis
Depiction of disc herniation causing central canal stenosis. cliparea

Also in senior and elderly years, discs lose water.  When discs dry out, the result may be brittle discs and a loss of cushioning for the spinal joints. This, along with other age related changes in the disc, is sometimes referred to as degenerative disc disease.  

Even though the discs are dry at this point, you can still get a herniation.



Spinal Arthritis and Spinal Stenosis

Depiction of a spine with spondylosis and facet joint hypertrophy
Facet joint hypertrophy may cause radiculopathy symptoms. Medical Art Inc./E+/Getty Images

Along with all this, arthritic changes in the vertebrae may occur that can lead to spinal stenosis.  One such type of change is facet joint hypertrophy.

Learn More:  Facet Joint Hypertrophy


Muscle Imbalance - An Any Age Condition

Depiction of a skeleton with muscles
Depiction of a skeleton with muscles. Science Picture/ Collection Mix: Subjects /Getty Images

Anyone, at nearly any age, can develop muscle imbalances that lead to back spasms or that predispose you to an injury you otherwise would not experience.  This is largely a matter of posture habits, movement bio-mechanics and your muscles’ strength and flexibility levels.

Maintaining a regular fitness plan that strengthens and stretches all muscle groups can help prevent, manage or even reverse this common condition, as can regular core strengthening exercises.



How to Mitigate Back Problems at Any Age

Core stabilization exercise.
Core stabilization exercise. Betsie Van der Meer/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The good news is that with regular exercise senior citizens and even elderly people can slow, stop or reverse the progression of many of these age-related changes.

In fact, a regular fitness plan at any age, can be of value in preventing and/or managing spine pain.  If you have back or neck problems, then tailoring your program to your age, activity level in daily life, gender, preferences, and past experience with exercise is a must for countering the effects of age related spinal changes.  Ask your physical therapist or doctor to guide you, or consult with a personal trainer who has experience with post rehab clients.

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Article Sources
  • Sources:
  • Doherty, T. Invited Review: Aging and sarcopenia. Journal of Applied Physiology. Oct. 2003. Accessed Feb 2016.
  • Marcell, T. Review Article: Sarcopenia: Causes, Consequences, and Preventions. Journal of Gerontology. May 2003. Accessed Feb 2016.