The average age when spinal cord injuries (SCIs) occur is 42, although SCIs may occur early in life due to sports-related injuries, disease, hard falls, or automobile accidents. Advances with treatment have increased the odds that people may be able to enjoy a healthy, productive life regardless of when the spinal cord was first injured. However, those who sustain such injuries sometimes experience other spine-related issues facilitated by the natural aging process. Many of these people end up requiring fusion surgery or one of the many alternatives to spinal fusion surgery so they can recover from their injuries. Here is an overview of what it’s like to age with a spinal cord injury.
Reduced Ability to Adapt to Age-Related Spine Changes
As the spine ages, muscles and other soft tissues that support it may become weaker or physically smaller. Conditions like osteoporosis may also develop due to age-related bone loss, or arthritis could contribute to swelling around spinal joints. Additional changes to the spine caused by a previous spinal cord injury can increase the odds of experiencing pain or limitations with mobility later in life.
Potential Concerns Specific to Wheelchair-Bound Patients
Patients who became wheelchair bound following their spinal cord injury may place added strain on their upper limbs due to years of repetitious motions and having to absorb extra pressure when transferring with a wheelchair. In time, this added wear on joints and muscles may result in the following changes:
- A progressive reduction in mobility
- New difficulties with daily tasks
- Weight gain over time from a limited ability to be physically active
- Increased difficulty with transferring to/from a wheelchair
Experiencing Age-Related Spine Issues Sooner
Added strain placed on the spine from the compensation sometimes required to maintain mobility may increase stress and strain enough to trigger age-related conditions sooner than the average age. Some patients may show signs of age-related spine conditions as soon as their early 50s if a SCI was experienced early in life.
Soft tissues affected by sitting in a similar position for long periods, as is often the case with wheelchair use, may be more susceptible to inflammation, which could place increased pressure on joints already becoming weaker due to natural bone loss. Contributing factors to early age-related spine issues for SCI survivors include:
- Age when the SCI occurred
- Extent of the damage from the SCI and what part of the spine it affected
- Lifestyle before and after a spinal cord injury
- Underlying issues that can affect the spine, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis not relegated to spinal joints
Having a spinal cord injury doesn’t have to automatically mean experiencing added difficulties later in life. Getting regular exercise or making modifications to exercise routines if you’re dependent on a wheelchair can keep spine-supporting muscles strong. Paying attention to diet, keeping weight within a normal range, scheduling regular checkups to identify potential issues early, and finding less physically demanding ways to perform regular tasks can also maintain your spine’s health as you age. Also, consider using special equipment to minimize stress on your spine and the need for repetitious movements.
Aging with a spinal cord injury can be challenging, but there are ways to manage the pain. Whether it’s through artificial disc replacement or extreme lateral interbody fusion, the expert surgeons at The Spine Institute can help patients find relief for their chronic pain. To schedule an appointment, give us a call at 310-828-7757 today.