Normal Aging, How Does it Look on the Inside?

A lot of my patients have to me come with a scan (X-ray, CT Scan or MRI) they have had done because they had some pain somewhere and a helpful doctor has referred them for imaging.  Not in and of itself a bad practice per se, but sometimes it can lead to people thinking they are more frail than they actually are.

Now, medical imaging is a GREAT tool available to us, and can absolutely pick up things unseen by the naked eye, things like tumours, cancer, growths, broken bones and stress fractures, etc.  When patients exhibit a certain set of symptoms, referral for imaging is paramount, and I am not questioning this.

What I am questioning is when someone has some pain that does not necessarily point to sinister pathology, but gets sent for a scan.  The problem, is that there is absolutely no scan in the world that will show pain, so what often ends up happening is the doctor/radiologist makes a comment on what they see in the scan and presto, that is the 'cause'...

Now, the doctor or radiologist is not wrong in what they see, but the connection between what is in the scan and your pain is not clear.  As an example we'll use back pain (but the same things happens with the neck, knees and shoulders); disc bulges, decreased disc height, thinner cartilage, 'degenerative disc disease' are all comments that can be made after an X-ray or MRI of the low back. 

What happens though when someone WITHOUT pain gets imaging?  A series of studies were done that looked at exactly this, and what did they find; almost exactly the same amount of 'disease' and 'degenerative changes' as people with pain.  So what causes all these changes? In a word, aging.  It happens to all of us eventually right, just like grey hair and wrinkles, it is inevitable, but it DOES NOT mean that you are guaranteed to have pain because of it!

This is a very important point to make, because pain is multi-factorial, and beliefs about what causes pain does in fact affect what pain we feel.  Our brains are very powerful, and if you believe something is going to hurt, guess what, it will.

So what can we do?  Move; exercise is paramount to reducing your risk of pain, especially joint pain, because our joints are supported by and moved by muscles.  The stronger our muscles are, the more support our joints have, plus you will get all the ancillary benefits of exercise.

It sounds simple, but it isn't necessarily easy, so if you have any questions, please see your physiotherapist about getting you moving again and giving your exercises to help reduce your risk of pain.