Back pain is one of the three most common reasons why people over the age of 55 go visit a doctor. In fact, 80% of Americans will suffer some degree of back pain, with 22% of elderly people in the US say that they suffering such pain on a daily basis.
Although back pain is such a widespread problem, there are relatively simple steps that people can take to manage existing back pain, and to prevent any current pain from becoming more debilitating.
Let’s run through them now.
1 – Properly diagnose the root cause of your back pain.
Effective treatment of a health issue relies on a proper understanding of its cause.
Unfortunately, all too often the cause of back pain is misunderstood.
It is usually assumed that if you have pain in a specific region of your back (say in the lower left portion of your back) then treating that pain involves working on that specific area of your back.
This is not necessarily true.
As muscles, bones and other tissues in the body are connected to one-another, pain in a certain region of your back could have a variety of causes.
One often under-diagnosed cause of back pain is weakness in the glutes (the muscles in your bottom and around your pelvis).
These muscles support the lower part of the spine where it meets the pelvis, and weakness and tightness in these muscles can tilt your spine backwards, putting excessive strain on the muscles in your lower back.
You can see with this example how simply treating the main site of the pain is not going to yield any long-term relief.
Rather its cause needs to be addressed.
The other most common causes of back pain in older people include:
- Degeneration of the cartilage between the vertebrae (arthritis)
- Nerves that have become trapped between the vertebrae
- Small fractures in the vertebrae themselves (this is particularly in common in older women with osteoporosis).
Although the pain experienced as a result of these different problems can be similar, they each require different treatments to be corrected.
Therefore it is absolutely vital to know the cause of your back pain if you want to treat it successfully. A medical professional may well be needed to help you identify this.
2 – Keep yourself as active and mobile as possible.
Our backs were designed to function best when we are regularly moving around. Therefore, the more you move, the less likely you are to suffer from back pain. Perhaps the worst type of posture, as far as your back is concerned, is sitting.
Sitting shortens and tightens your glutes, tilting the base of your spine backwards into an unnatural position. Walking, stretching and squatting can help undo some of this damage, you need to do this on a consistent basis to yield benefit from it.
Movement also helps loosen up your spine, which can help ease other causes of back pain such as cartilage degeneration. The term “motion is lotion” is often used to describe the beneficial effects of movement for back pain.
Even just walking for 20 minutes a day, so long as you do this most days, can help significantly reduce back pain.
3 – Strengthen the muscles in your stomach (abs)
The muscles in your back work closely with the muscles in your stomach when it comes to movements such as bending over, lifting, and even standing up straight.
Unfortunately a lot of us underuse our stomach muscles, leading to a chronic weakness in that area.
Again, this is often due to lifestyles that demand a lot of sitting down.
Weak stomach muscles means that the muscles in our back have to do more work and take more strain. This, over time, can contribute to pain in areas of the back, especially as you get older and the effects of wear-and-tear become more pronounced.
It is akin to having a lazy colleague at work. Others have to overwork themselves in order to pick up the slack.
There are a few indicators that your back pain is caused by weaknesses in your stomach muscles. These include:
- You stand with a slouched posture where your hips and stomach protrude forward.
- Your stomach is particularly bulgy in comparison to the amount of fat on the rest of your body.
- You have trouble tensing your stomach muscles, particularly when exhaling (try doing this for 10 seconds, it is called the “hollowing test”)
If any of these are true, and you also suffer from regular back pain, then working on strengthening your stomach muscles may help reduce the extent of your pain.
Only perform exercises that you can do without hurting your back, but bear in mind that in such exercises strain on your back should be mitigated through properly engaging your stomach muscles.
Practicing these exercises under the supervision of a physiotherapist or personal trainer can help you learn how it feels to engage your stomach muscles when performing these movements.
4 – Take appropriate measures to avoid bone and cartilage degeneration
As outlined earlier, the most common causes of back pain in older people are muscle imbalances, arthritis, and problems with the vertebrae themselves.
Keeping mobile and strengthening your glutes and abs are the best way to reduce the back problems caused by muscle imbalances.
Problems with the bones and cartilage, however, can be more complex to rectify.
The likelihood of these problems occurring depend on a variety of variables, including genetics, diet, and other lifestyle factors.
Not all of these you can control, however you can take some steps to reduce your likelihood of developing these problems.
- Eating the right things
The health of your bones and connective tissue depends in part on what you eat. The most important nutrients are calcium and Vitamin D and K. These are found in dairy foods, as well as in beans, fish and tofu.
Omega 3 fatty acid is also very important in maintaining the proper functioning of your cartilage and the synovial fluid that surrounds your spine.
You can get these from oily fish, or from cod liver oil supplements.
- Not smoking
Smoking cigarettes has been proven to lower your bone density, making you more susceptible to developing small fractures in your spine. It is particularly important to not smoke if you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis.
- Maintaining a healthy weight
Excess body weight puts undue pressure on your bones and joints. This can increase the likelihood of problems such as slipped discs and trapped nerves which are two of the most common causes of back pain.