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Are Changes to the Cervical Spine Inevitable as We Age?

Complaints of back pain are common among adults, and a stooped posture with rounded shoulders and a forward-jutting head is one of the markers of advancing age. Yet much of the research on spinal integrity and degeneration neglects to examine lifestyle factors that influence spinal alignment, musculature and bone mineral density. When it comes to upper spinal alignment and degeneration, there are multiple factors that contribute to changes in the cervical spine.

Factors that support cervical spinal health include:

  • Good postural habits
  • Regular physical activity
  • Weight bearing exercise
  • Balanced nutrition
  • Good sleep hygiene
  • Proper movement mechanics

Sadly, most people do not pay attention to spinal health until they experience pain, and by then there is often irreparable damage that cannot be corrected, only managed.

What New Research Says About Cervical Spine Degeneration and Symptoms

A recent longitudinal study by Daimon et al. (2018) examined changes in cervical spinal health in 193 subjects over a 20 year span, from 1996 to 2016. The research team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify spinal degeneration. Patients were also questioned about the presence or absence of cervical spine-related symptoms.

The study revealed that 95 percent of the study participants experienced some degree of degenerative changes in the cervical spine over the 20 year period. Interestingly, the research team found no relationship between the patients’ reported clinical symptoms and spinal degeneration, except in the case of foraminal stenosis and upper-limb pain.

While this study appears to indicate that degeneration of the cervical spine is common and inevitable, the study does not attempt to identify contributing factors to spinal degeneration. A full 5 percent of the study participants exhibited no changes to the cervical spine over the 20 year period, leading to the question of why those individuals maintained a healthy spine while others did not.

Why Spinal Health Matters, and What You Can Do About It

The bones of your spine house and protect your central nervous system as it descends from your brain to the peripheral regions of your body. As the spine degenerates, nerves become vulnerable to outside forces, leading to damage, pain and dysfunction. Moreover, your spinal alignment is governed by your muscles. Too tight, weakened or too lax muscles can affect overall spinal health, and can lead to postural issues, neuromuscular problems, and faulty movement mechanics.

A healthy spine is foundational to overall physical performance, and reduces the risk of pain, falls and injuries as you age. Good spinal alignment makes you appear more youthful, and promotes healthy function of your vital organs. Over time, muscles tend to become imbalanced, pulling your spine out of alignment. Even elite athletes can develop muscular imbalances, because most sports do not recruit the muscles in a symmetrical way.

You can take measures to improve your body alignment, optimize muscle tension and promote long-term spinal health today. A physical therapist can help to identify spinal misalignment, postural defects and imbalances in muscle tension. Most people can benefit from gait analysis and retraining, and from training programs designed to correct poor posture and faulty movement mechanics.

Resources

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Source

Daimon, Kenshi, et al. “A 20-year Prospective Longitudinal Study of Degeneration of the Cervical Spine in a Volunteer Cohort Assessed Using Mri: Follow-up of a Cross-sectional Study.” JBJS 100.10 (2018): 843-849.

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