Spine Acts Its Age with Spondylosis

Older woman holding her neck with painQuestion: For the last year or two I've noticed that I have increasing neck pain. I went to the doctor last week and learned that I'm in the early stages of cervical spondylosis. I'm approaching retirement, and I'm wondering how this condition will affect me. Will it progress quickly? Can I do anything to slow it down? I enjoy tennis and golf, but will I need to stop playing?
—Melbourne, FL

Answer: Spondylosis, also known as spinal arthritis, is a "side effect" of aging that most people don't know about. It basically means degeneration of the spine. After years of carrying the weight of your body, absorbing shock from movement, and dealing with the demands of daily life, your spine can start to show signs of wear and tear. This completely normal aging process is spondylosis. It can affect your neck (cervical spine), mid-back (thoracic spine), or low back (lumbar spine).

How the Spine Ages
Spondylosis comes on gradually, which is why you've noticed increasing neck pain over the last year or two. As you age, it's easy to notice the external signs: gray hair, for example. However, there are a lot of changes inside your body, too. One of them is that the intervertebral discs (the "cushions" in between your vertebrae in your spine) can lose water content, making them a less effective cushion.

Losing water content causes your discs to become thinner, and that prevents your spine from moving as easily. The facet joints, which link vertebrae together and help you move, are covered by cartilage. When the intervertebral discs thin, that cartilage can begin to erode. Your body then creates bone spurs (osteophytes) in an effort to help itself. However, the bone spurs can rub together, causing inflammation in the facet joints; that's called osteoarthritis, a common form of spondylosis.

But all of those degenerative changes happen little by little. They also happen on a very individualized basis and timeline. Just like some people go gray faster, some people develop symptoms of spondylosis more quickly. Also, it's possible to have degenerative changes in the spine but no pain. Since degenerative changes are a normal part of aging, it's highly likely that we'll all have some form of these changes; however, we might not all have pain.

But all of those degenerative changes happen little by little. They also happen on a very individualized basis and timeline. Just like some people go gray faster, some people develop symptoms of spondylosis more quickly. Also, it's possible to have degenerative changes in the spine but no pain. Since degenerative changes are a normal part of aging, it's highly likely that we'll all have some form of these changes; however, we might not all have pain.

All that to say: it's difficult to predict how spondylosis will affect you. I can reassure you that since it's a gradual degeneration process, it may not be very noticeable beyond the neck pain that you've already experienced.

How You Can Deal with Spondylosis
There isn't a sure fire way to slow down spondylosis, but there are some things you can do to help yourself.

First of all, staying in shape is very important because a healthy body is generally less prone to the degenerative processes. For that reason, I'd say that you don't have to worry about stopping tennis and golf-—those activities should be helpful because they keep you moving! As part of your general fitness, you can also focus on exercises that strengthen your neck muscles. Muscles that better support your cervical spine will help your neck move more easily.

Secondly, while you're still in the working world, you should watch your posture while sitting at the computer. Most of us tend to hunch over, slumping the shoulders and putting excess strain on the neck. To protect your neck, learn how best to sit at the computer and then go to work. (You can read the article Is Your Work Space Spine-Friendly? to get some ergonomic pointers.)

Finally, for when you have pain, you can try over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or your doctor may prescribe something stronger for periods of acute pain. Additionally, I've had patients who have tried glucosamine and/or chondroitin sulfate with some good results. Those are glycosaminoglycans that can be taken separately or in combination. They're made from natural sources, and they've been shown to sometimes improve the symptoms of spondylosis.

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