Holistic approach to spine health offers options

Spine patients are often surprised to learn that surgery is not the only option for spinal conditions. As a neurosurgeon with 30 years of experience, I am a firm believer in a holistic approach to spine care that utilizes a team of health care experts including pain management specialists, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists. Some neurosurgeons consider surgery to be a cure-all for any spine condition, but for seniors in particular, alternative approaches can be equally beneficial and may even offer a safer route to staying pain free.

Spinal conditions are largely degenerative and have to do with the aging, wear and tear of the spine. These conditions include spinal stenosis; degenerative disc disease; spondylolisthesis, or slippage of the vertebrae; ligamentous laxity; and a variety of fractures that can afflict the elderly.

For senior patients with rheumatic conditions, such as arthritis, ligamentous laxity or weakening of the spinal ligaments, non-surgical spine care providers can offer effective treatments.

Another common condition in seniors is osteoporosis, generally afflicting women over the age of 60. These patients often suffer from vertebral compression fractures, which are fractures of the vertebrae, and often do not require surgical relief.

Senior patients with osteoporosis can benefit from a procedure performed by pain management specialists or interventional radiologists, in which an inflatable balloon or glue product is injected into the compressed vertebra to stabilize it.

Even for seniors without spine conditions or back pain, maintaining good spine health is important. There are a number of everyday things that seniors can do to help prevent the wear and tear I see most often at my clinic. Here are a few tips:

Beware of winter hazards. Take extreme caution when walking on ice or performing winter activities such as skiing, snow-machining or mountaineering. Invest in a decent pair of high-traction spiked shoes for walking on ice – falling on ice can result in devastating spinal injuries. If you are at all unsteady, use a cane or a walker for better balance.

Know your limits. Don’t overdo it by shoveling snow or engaging in activities that make you uneasy. Falls can happen without warning, and unnecessary exposure to these seemingly minor dangers can lead to life-changing injuries. Avoid heavy lifting and use common sense in avoiding activities that will over-stress your spine. Play it safe.

Healthy lifestyle means healthy spine. A healthy diet and a high level of activity contribute greatly to a healthy spine. Two epidemiological studies that focus on the diet, morbidity and mortality of large groups of humans, “The China Study” and “The Okinawa Way,” offer valuable tips for healthy living.

“The China Study,” for example, found that the healthiest diet for the body and spine is a plant-based, whole-foods diet. “The Okinawa Way” studied a Japanese population with the highest rate of centenarians in the world, focusing on the diets and lifestyles of these healthy, active and happy people – many in their 80s, 90s and older. The study found that a lifestyle filled with social connections, moderate exercise and a plant-based, whole-foods diet contributed to the longer lifespans within this group. 

Marius Maxwell, MD, PhD, is the chief neurosurgeon at Arctic Spine, an Anchorage clinic specializing in spine disorders and surgeries. For more information, call 907-222-6500.

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