Why we shrink as we get older

Why we shrink as we get older

There’s no getting away from it. As we age, we shrink. All of us. There are a number of reasons for this, however possibly the most debilitating and painful is spinal stenosis.

The spine gets a lot of wear and tear over our lifetime. As we age, this wear and tear can cause degenerative changes. Sometimes these degenerative changes are accelerated by trauma – either at work or in a sport. Unfortunately, this degeneration can cause a great deal of pain.

Each vertebra of the spine is separated by an intervertebral disc, that acts as a cushion to absorb shock and helps us bend. As we age, these discs begin to dry out and flatten, which reduces the space between the vertebrae. And so we shrink. But that isn’t the only problem. This thinning of the discs can cause bone on bone friction. The body responds to this friction by adding bone to the area, causing bony growths on the vertebrae. This is a problem if the growths impinge on the spinal canal or the nerve root canal as it narrows the canals and can cause a great deal of pain. This is called ‘stenosis’.


Depending on which parts of the spinal column are affected, patients will feel pain in their arms and hands or their legs. Pain is generally described as like toothache pain or lightening. If the stenosis is in the upper (cervical) spine patients might feel pain like an electric shock down their spine and into their arms and hands. Pain increases with movement and reduces with rest. In extreme cases, stenosis can cause lack of control of bladder or bowels and even paraplegia or quadriplegia.


Diagnosis is generally made via X-ray, MRI or CT Scans. Once diagnosed there are a number of treatment options for stenosis, although there is not a cure. Treatment rather focuses on the symptoms and pain reduction. The key is to keep the area mobile and to increase stability around the spine, strengthening adjacent muscles.

Chiropractic spinal mobilization will help take pressure off the spine relieving pain and discomfort. Ultrasound and acupuncture may be used and exercises prescribed. Anti-inflammatories can assist with reducing irritation.

Massage will help relieve associated muscle pain, and again keep the area mobile.

In extreme cases, steroid spinal injections and even surgery may be required. A laminectomy will shave off some of the bone growths to relieve pressure on the nerves. This will sometimes be followed by spinal fusion surgery to create more stability.

If you think you may be suffering from spinal stenosis, call Precision Health Spine & Sports Clinic on (02) 9639 7337 to make an appointment at our Baulkham Hills clinic.

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