As you age, your spine can naturally lose its normal structure and function. Spinal sprains, strains and overuse over the course of a person’s life can cause gradual spinal degeneration. Most people over 40 experience some degeneration of spinal disks, which can cause back pain. Common spine problems with aging can often be prevented or treated without surgery, but sometimes an operation is the only option to relieve pain.
Talk to your doctor if you have chronic back pain. Your doctor will make diagnoses, recommend a plan of action, and monitor your condition. Seniors and Medicare-eligibles have health insurance resources at their disposal. Medicare will cover some diagnostic and treatment services for back pain in the elderly.
What is Spinal Degeneration?
The spine is composed of vertebrae and rubbery disks that act as cushions between the bones. Spinal degeneration is when the parts that make up your spine break down and lose function. Many conditions can contribute to spinal degeneration, including:
You lose bone density as you age, putting you at risk for osteoporosis, which means “porous bones.” Women are more susceptible to osteoporosis than men. Osteoporosis can often result in bone fractures, and oftentimes symptoms don’t surface until the first broken bone.
Spine disks have an outer portion that contains the rubbery part that cushions the vertebrae. A herniated disk occurs when the outer portion tears and the rubbery inside starts to poke through the outside.
As arthritis or disk degeneration becomes worse, the space that contains the spinal cord and nerve roots can become narrow and cause stenosis. When the space narrows, a ligament that goes over the space between the vertebrae can become short and thick. That narrowed space between the disks puts added pressure on the nerves and can cause pain.
Spinal Degeneration Symptoms
Common spine problems with aging usually include pain. Some people have manageable pain or discomfort, but others may experience incapacitating pain. Symptoms include:
- Pain in the lower back, buttocks, and legs
- Pain that starts in the neck and then travels to the arms and hands
- Pain that’s not as noticeable when you walk, but worsens when you sit down
- Pain that gets worse quickly when you bend, twist or lift things
- Pain that gets better depending on how you sit or lay
Long-term nerve damage that results from spinal degeneration may feel like tingling or numbness in your arms or legs.
Testing for Spinal Degeneration
Diagnosing spinal degeneration can be difficult because the conditions usually start small. As the components of your spine deteriorate, serious spine problems become more likely to occur. For example, degenerative disk disease can cause spinal degeneration that can eventually result in a herniated disk. However, lifting a heavy object the wrong way can also cause a herniated disk. Even though your doctor may be able to quickly diagnose a herniated disk, finding out that the root cause of the hernia is degenerative disk disease may take more in-depth screening.
Testing for common spine problems with aging may come in the form of diagnostic imaging including X-ray, MRI or EMG depending on your symptoms. Medicare will cover all three tests if your doctor orders them.
Elderly Back Pain Solutions
Many common spine problems in older adults can be prevented by practicing healthy habits. However, sometimes problems can become severe enough that the only way to treat the pain is surgery.
Back pain is oftentimes caused by the inflammation and pressure on the nerves that any spinal degeneration condition can bring. You can help relieve pain by:
- Proper posture: Exercising good posture can help stop chronic back pain before it starts. Medicare will cover a back brace to help remind you to keep your back straight.
- Physical activity: You’ll feel better the more active you are, and you can recover from back pain episodes sooner. Certain private insurance plans called Medicare Advantage plans cover fitness classes.
- Physical therapy: Your doctor can prescribe an exercise program to help improve your balance and mobility. Medicare covers doctor-prescribed physical therapy.
- Cold application: Use an ice pack to help relieve pain when you first experience pain. Applying ice for 20 minutes can help calm inflammation or muscle spasms. If you don’t have an ice pack, a bag of frozen peas will work.
- Heat application: If back pain persists for a couple of days, try using a heating pad or taking a warm bath. Heat can help relax your back muscles and increase blood flow. After you’ve applied heat, stretch your muscles to prevent muscle spasms.
- Over-the-counter pain medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID) such as ibuprofen, aspirin or naproxen can help stop pain. Talk to your doctor about when and how to take NSAIDs.
- Effective rest: You may want to stay in bed if you “throw your back out,” but gentle stretching will aid in your recovery much better. Bed rest can actually make back pain in the elderly worsen and last much longer.
Sometimes back pain will become chronic and persistent, and you’ll need more invasive treatments. Your doctor might recommend:
- Nerve blocks: A steroid injection can reduce back pain and inflammation at its source. Medicare covers medically necessary steroid injections, but it has specific requirements for Epidural Steroid Injections (ESI).
- Radiofrequency ablation: A needle that can transfer radiowaves can be inserted to block pain signals from nerves using high-frequency current. For some people, it can relieve chronic back pain for nine months or longer. Medicare will cover radiofrequency ablation if it’s medically necessary.
- Spinal cord stimulators: Stimulating part of the spinal cord can change some people’s pain perception. A small array of electrodes that works much like multiple pacemakers can be implanted to send electrical impulses to the spinal cord. The impulses can hide or divert pain signals so they don’t reach the brain.
If more conservative therapies don’t work and pain persists for more than three months, it might be time for more drastic measures. Surgery is a last resort for people whose pain gets unmanageable. The surgeries used to treat spinal degeneration range from minimally invasive procedures to more involved procedures including:
- Minimally invasive lumbar decompression: An outpatient procedure that treats spinal stenosis by making a small incision and removing part of the disc to alleviate pressure on the nerves.
- Minimally invasive kyphoplasty or vertebroplasty: A procedure that uses cement to help treat a spine fracture. The cement helps relieve pain and return the patient to full function.
- Spinal fusion: A surgery that fuses two vertebrae together to make the spine more stable. It can relieve extreme pain and help you bear your weight again.
Medicare will cover medically-necessary back surgery, but you may owe coinsurance and deductibles.
We Can Help
Your doctor can help you treat and prevent common spine problems with aging, and the right Medicare plan can help you cover the costs. A Medicare Plan Finder agent can help you find a plan that fits your budget and medical needs. Call us at 833-438-3676 or contact us here to arrange a no-obligation appointment.