Dr. Stuart Weinstein says it’s not uncommon to see a senior citizen in his exam room who has been suffering much too long with severe back pain.
“Sometimes seniors don’t want to accept back pain just because they’re just getting older,” says Weinstein, a clinical professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Rehabilitative Medicine.
Weinstein and other doctors, fitness instructors and physical therapists say back pain is not an inevitable symptom of aging. Rather, it’s a sign of a physical problem with the back or spine that should be addressed before it worsens into a disability.
That pain can cause seniors to become more sedentary and even fearful of some of their favorite activities, such as golf, or even simply going out to lunch with friends.
“For any health issue, but particularly back problems, it’s easy for seniors to fall into the trap of eliminating daily activities, even not leaving their house,” Weinstein says.
Problems such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis and other degenerative back problems can worsen over time, leading some seniors to believe that as they age they are destined for an aching back.
They may even see it among their friends, since, according to a recent study, as many as 25 percent of people 65 and older complain of back pain. Weinstein believes the percentage of seniors with back problems is likely higher.
Anyone, of any age, should focus on back health to prevent back pain, and should use exercise to ensure they are strong and stable as they grow older, doctors and physical therapists say.
Exercises to improve back strength include movement in water, including walking in water, which gives a slight resistance yet is still low-impact.
Many yoga positions can be beneficial, too, but discuss any back problems with your instructor, because some yoga poses can aggravate the spine.
Common back problems include:
Osteoarthritis: The breakdown of cartilage between joints allows bones to move against each other. It can happen in many joints of the body, and can cause pain or weakness in the back, usually when a person stands, walks or bends. While osteoarthritis can worsen with age, it’s not a disease that every person gets as they grow old.
Osteoporosis: Thinning bones is a serious condition that can cause painful fractures in the spine. Without fractures, osteoporosis is not usually painful, but it can lead to microfractures and a loss of height over time.
Scoliosis: Mostly diagnosed in women, the slight curvature of the spine might not cause problems when a woman is young, but the condition can worsen with age, causing strain on muscles, joints and ligaments in the upper and lower back and possibly lead to neurlogic symptoms.
Spinal stenosis: Spinal stenosis is caused by narrowing in the spinal nerve canal, which compresses nerves. It typically does not result in back pain, but symptoms include weak or painful legs. Stenosis can be helped with anti-inflammatory drugs, physical therapy, spinal injections and, in some cases, surgery.
Weinstein says each of those problems should be treated individually, and there are a variety of treatments, including medication, physical therapy and, sometimes, surgery.
It’s common for a series of exercises to strengthen muscles is prescribed, to prevent problems from reoccurring, or to help loosen joints affected by osteoarthritis. Water-based exercises are especially effective, because they cause less stress on the spine.
Moderate or severe back pain, or persistent mild pain, should not be ignored or accepted. Persistent back pain that cannot be traced to an injury can indicate other serious health problems, such as bone cancer or an aortic aneurism, particularly in seniors. So it’s important to have back pain checked out by a doctor to eliminate such life-threatening issues before pursuing other treatments.
Source: www.bellinghamherald.com; Ericka Pizzillo Cohen; January 14, 2013.