Back pain is an ailment many associate with old age, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the age group most likely to suffer back pain and to suffer bad back pain is 35-55 years old, with a sharp decline in reported back pains from the age of 55 onwards. The reason for this is quite simple: back pains are usually caused by lifestyle factors, and these lifestyle factors, such as spending too much time at a desk, eating junk food, or injuring yourself playing sports, are less common after retirement.
However, this does not mean that the elderly are free of back pain. Rather, that it happens more rarely, and for slightly different reasons, than in younger people. So what causes are there of back pain in the elderly, and how can we work to treat and manage them?
Many older people suffer from osteoporosis, and post-menopausal women especially so. Osteoporosis should not, in and of itself, cause back pain. It is actually simply the loss of bone density. However, osteoporosis can contribute to poor posture, weak or loose joints, and even fractures, which can cause back pain. If you suffer osteoporosis and experience sudden, sharp back pain, it is vital to get emergency medical care, as you could have suffered a compression fracture, which could put your mobility or even your life at risk. Slowing down the development of osteoporosis is the one way of preventing osteoporosis-related back pains.
Arthritis is a common source of back pain. This swelling and wear down of the joints can affect any joint in the body, and the spine is no exception. As the inflammation builds up, it can cause serious pain, even when you are not moving. And sometimes the wear down on the joints can be so severe that you are forced to adopt unhealthy postures like a hunched over position, which can cause muscular and tendon pains as well. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet and taking anti-inflammatory medication can help a lot when it comes to back pain from arthritis.
However, the usual causes of back pain can still strike as we grow older. Inactivity is a huge cause of back pain. When you do not move or exercise your back muscles enough, they can begin to waste away. This loss of muscle makes your back weak, ruining your posture and creating back pain. But it also makes you vulnerable to injuries, and less able to recover from an injury. Although generally older people are more active than working age people, many older people find it hard to stay active due to other injuries or ailments.
It can be difficult to get moving when you are older, but like with many things, the more you do it the easier it gets. It is important to remember that you do not need to be doing anything amazing to grow your muscles. You just need to move a little and carry a little weight from time to time. Even a few minutes a day of light yoga could begin to improve your back muscles and alleviate your pain. And the stronger you get and the less pain you suffer, the easier you will find it to exercise more, creating a healthy cycle.
Another physical issue is that older people are more likely to be overweight than younger people. Between lower rates of sport and intense activity, a reduced metabolism, and a quieter life, your metabolic needs will slowly decrease as you age, meaning you need far fewer calories to sustain or gain weight. For this reason it is recommended for older people with back pain to consider losing some weight, to relieve the pressure on their spine, which may alleviate their back pain.
Finally, simply staying mobile, even if you cannot exercise much, can help to alleviate a lot of stiffness and pain in the back. A lot of back pain actually comes from simply not using the joints and muscles in your back the way nature intended. When you move your joints you are promoting flexibility and lubrication, which makes you less likely to suffer stiffness or injury when you are going about your daily life.