The number of senior citizens in the United States is expected to grow from 17 percent to 22 percent by 2050. Older people often have unique health needs, and this is true in the realm of neurosurgery. Understanding some of the neurosurgery issues seniors face, including some of the most common surgeries and special considerations for this age group, can help older folks and their families determine if they’re dealing with a health issue that could be helped by surgery of the brain or spine.
Common Reasons why Seniors Need Neurosurgeries
Many of the most common neurosurgeries performed on seniors are designed to address age-related degeneration of the spine or injuries due to accidental falls.
One of the more common problems seen in seniors is the development of spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spinal canal. It results in limited ability to stand for more than a few minutes or walk any distance due to pain and weakness in legs, which generally improves with sitting. This condition is often treated with a surgical procedure called decompressive laminectomy, where excess bone and ligament growth over the spinal canal caused by arthritic changes is removed to make more room in the spinal canal.
The cervical spine is another common area of concern for older people. One major cervical issue is disc degeneration and development of osteophytes, also known as bone spurs. These spurs can cause both painful pressure on the spinal cord and pinched nerves. Surgeons can perform several different neurosurgeries to treat bone spurs and other cervical spine problems.
Another reason seniors may need neurosurgery is an injury sustained during a fall. Falling can be particularly dangerous for people with osteoporosis, who are prone to vertebral compression fractures because their bones are weakened by their condition.
The other problem often seen with falling is that many seniors take blood thinners for their heart or other reasons. If they fall and hit their head, they may experience bleeding in the brain that can precipitate the need for surgery.
Special Considerations for Seniors Before and After Surgery
Because many seniors are often dealing with multiple health issues—and take medications such as blood thinners to manage these issues—it is important for neurosurgeons to consult with a person’s primary doctor and other care providers to determine if this person is a good candidate for neurosurgery.
If the person is deemed a good candidate for neurosurgery by all of their providers, the next step is discussing expectations. It’s important to set realistic post-surgery goals and expectations, whether that means being able to walk to the mailbox and back or standing long enough to wash the dishes without pain.
In terms of recovery, many seniors are able to return to normal activities within 4 to 6 weeks of surgery. And patients are often able to control their pain with over-the-counter pain relievers, allowing them to avoid strong prescription pain medication, if that’s their preference.
Quality of Life Matters
If you or a loved one are dealing with degeneration or other age-related issues that are keeping you from enjoying your golden years, consider consulting with a neurosurgeon—especially if you feel like you’ve tried everything and can’t seem to find relief. You have surgical options—many of them non-invasive—that can ease your symptoms and get you back to doing the things you love.