The nerves are responsible for carrying sensory and motor information between the brain and every part of the body, making movement and the sense of touch possible. A pinched nerve occurs when pressure is placed on a nerve by a bone, muscle or other connective tissue, causing the disruption of basic nerve functions and painful symptoms like tingling and numbness. While there can be a number of causes for this, like traumatic or repetitive injuries, aging can play a big role in the development of nerve compression.
Everyone is subject to the natural aging process that causes our bodies to break down over time. Parts like joints, ligaments and muscles are vulnerable to this deterioration, which can displace anatomy and cause a pinched nerve. One area of the body that is especially prone to deterioration is the spine, where many patients will develop a pinched nerve from aging and experience debilitating symptoms.
Overview of spine deterioration
To understand why pinched nerves are common in the spine, it helps to go over some basics of spinal anatomy. The spine has two primary roles: protecting the spinal cord and supporting the upper body and head. In a way, these two functions can work against each other because bearing the heavy amount of weight from the body while still being flexible enough can cause the spine to break down faster than other parts of the body. In turn, this degeneration of the spine can easily interfere with any of the nervous tissue that is so tightly packed into the spinal canal.
Some of the most common spinal conditions that can cause a pinched nerve from aging include:
- Spinal arthritis — Like the rest of the body, the spine is vulnerable to joint inflammation due to the breakdown of cartilage. Bone spurs can form as the body’s natural response to the friction that can constrict the spinal cord and pinch nerves.
- Herniated discs — The discs in the spine sit between the vertebrae and act as cushions, allowing the spine to bend and flex. A herniated disc occurs when the disc’s softer interior pushes out through a tear in the weakened exterior. This inner disc material can enter into the spinal canal or foraminal canal and cause nerve compression.
- Bulging discs — A bulging disc is similar to a herniated disc, except where no rupture occurs. When a disc becomes dried out and brittle, it loses elasticity, causing it to bulge out between the vertebrae. This can result in a pinched nerve.
- Spinal stenosis — This is a general term for narrowing of the spine from any one of a range of conditions, including the ones listed above.
Why a pinched nerve from aging is so common
There are a number of factors that can speed along the development of degenerative spine conditions, including repetitive physical activity, injury, smoking and carrying extra weight. However, a person could avoid all of these things and still have to deal with arthritis of the spine or a bulging disc.
While there is research being done on the influence of genetics on these conditions, most doctors acknowledge that age plays a very large role. Combine this with how easily nerve compression occurs in the spine because of the already tight spaces involved and it’s easy to understand how a pinched nerve from aging happens to so many people.
Even if you have developed a pinched nerve at an older age, it doesn’t mean the end of a healthy, active lifestyle. There are a number of effective treatment options available that can help you find pain relief.
Treatment for pinched spinal nerves
Treating age-related nerve compression almost always begins with your primary care physician. He or she can properly diagnose your condition and help you develop a care plan to relieve symptoms. Most of these plans start with conservative treatments like the following:
- Anti-inflammatory medication
- Alternating hot and cold compresses
- Diet and exercise plans, both to lose weight and strengthen supporting muscles
- Physical therapy
- Epidural steroid injections
A very large number of patients do report finding relief from a pinched nerve by consistently following these methods, but there are still many who continue experiencing pain and mobility issues even after weeks or months of treatment. If this is your situation, you might have begun to research the possibility of back surgery to find relief from pain and to be able to return to normal activity.
Surgery can be extremely beneficial in the right circumstances because it can treat the underlying cause of a pinched nerve instead of just treating the symptoms. Doctors and patients generally reserve back surgery as a last resort treatment because accessing the spine usually involves large incisions that can result in scarring, overnight hospital stays and a long, sometimes painful recovery period. Concerns like these are even more important if you are an older patient with a pinched spinal nerve, as recovery from surgical procedures only becomes more difficult with age.
An alternative to traditional open back surgery that many patients are starting to turn to is minimally invasive spine surgery. These methods have the same goal as traditional procedures — decompression of spinal nerves — but use advances in medical technology to access the spine. These procedures use smaller incisions that reduce recovery time and potentially avoid the need for hospitalization. If you are considering surgery for a pinched nerve from aging, ask your doctor if he or she can refer you to a practice that performs minimally invasive procedures.