Aging On the Inside?

Wrinkles on the inside and outside are normal part of aging – WHAT?!
Despite an explosion in scientific research on the human body, there continues to be a great deal of misunderstanding in how our hips, knees and spine adapt as we become older (and wiser!). The first common myth is that degenerative changes in our hips, knees, and spine are always painful.
The good news is that nearly three decades of research has debunked this myth. Here is what we do know: As we age, all of our body parts change to varying degrees. Outward signs of aging are often noted on our face. For example, as our skin ages, we get wrinkles or we develop hair loss or hair gain where we don’t want it. Fortunately, these outward signs of aging are not physically painful, though sometimes our egos feel bruised. At the same time our joints often develop “wrinkles on the inside.” These wrinkles or narrowing of our joint surfaces are often given scary names such as “degenerative joint disease” or “arthritis.”
However, we often do not hear the rest of the story which is that with aging we all develop narrowing or wrinkling of joint surfaces and frequently we develop small additional bits of bone (or hairs) that are called osteophytes. These changes are usually not painful. In fact, research studies that use X-rays and MRIs have shown that in individuals over 60 years old narrowing of the joints of the hips, knees, and spine are just as common in individuals without pain as those with pain.
What does this mean to each of us? It means that as we age if we begin to develop low back pain, hip pain, or knee pain that we need to be very careful of placing too much emphasis on the results of just the picture (X-ray or MRI) of our joints. In fact, recent national clinical best practice guidelines suggest that medical imaging should not be used in the initial management of low back pain as this often leads to worse outcomes and in the case of x-rays and CT scans undue radiation exposure. We all need to be encouraged to have frank discussions with our medical providers to make sure that what is often just normal age related changes are not blamed for the pain around our joints.
While these changes may be contributing factors to our pain, current research has shown that stiffness and muscle weakness are frequently the cause of pain in our joints as we age. Often, much of the joint pain we experience with aging can be alleviated by an exercise program that includes appropriate stretching, motion, and strengthening exercises. So as we age it is normal to develop wrinkles on the outside and the inside. And as a result of those inside wrinkles, it is even more important to remain active and keep our joints moving and our muscles working.
Care of Drs. Tim Flynn and Terry Gerhart, DPT’s from Colorado Physical Therapt Specialists
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