More than half of all people over 60 will experience back pain. For some, this may be a one-time incident that resolves quickly and never returns. For others, back pain may come back off and on under certain circumstances or even stay in a more continuous fashion. Much of this depends on the cause of the back pain and what you do to take care of it.
Causes of back pain
- Muscle strain or sprain
- Spinal joint injury like a ruptured disc, a compression fracture of the vertebrae or spondylolisthesis (a vertebra slips forward out of place)
- Spinal stenosis
- Fibromyalgia or other chronic pain conditions
Less common causes of back pain
- Spinal infections
- Spinal tumors
- Inflammatory diseases
- Kidney infections or kidney stones
- Abdominal aortic aneurysm
Other associated symptoms
Back pain can be localized to only one area of the back or it can cover the entire area. It may present as a dull aching sensation that slowly worsens over time or it can be sharp, extremely painful, and come on suddenly. There may be other symptoms that are associated with your back pain like:
- Weakness in certain muscle groups
- Numbness or tingling in extremities
- Pain radiating down the arm or leg
- Fever, fatigue or malaise
- Difficulty urinating or defecating
- Increased pain, numbness or tingling with certain movements
- Pain in other muscles or joints
- Redness and swelling over the affected area
When to see your doctor
First and foremost, you know your body best so if you are concerned something is wrong and you can’t find a plausible explanation it is always advisable to contact your doctor. Only they can figure out if there is something that needs treatment or further investigation. That being said here are a few of the symptoms that warrant a doctor’s visit. Note: this list is not exhaustive.
- Any recent history of serious trauma or injury or infection
- Loss of sensation or numbness and tingling of extremities or of other areas including genitals, anus and inner thighs
- Profound muscle weakness that affects the use of the extremities
- Other new unexplained joint pains
- Loss of or change in bowel/bladder function or new onset erectile dysfunction
- Fever, fatigue, malaise or weight loss that can’t be explained by any other reason
- Signs of infection in the area like swelling, redness, heat, discharge or other skin changes overlying the affected area
- Previous history of cancer or tuberculosis
- A pulsing abdominal mass
- History of osteoporosis or immunosuppression
How to prevent back pain
- Regular exercise focusing on maintaining a healthy weight, strengthening the core muscles and stretching muscles of back, hips, thighs, and hamstrings.
- Regular stretching exercises or yoga to help offset the loss of flexibility that comes with a sedentary lifestyle or the natural aging process.
- Maintain good posture.
- Practice safe lifting techniques (bend at the knees not the back and use your legs to do the lifting). Also, avoid lifting very heavy objects. When you lift objects that are too heavy for you it is more likely that you will use your back as well as your legs.
- As always, a balanced healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and complex carbohydrates provides the required building blocks to maintain healthy muscles and bones.
How to manage existing back pain (once you know that it does not need medical attention)
- Over the counter pain medications such as Ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Stay active, you may be inclined to rest but back pain is improved by movement, strengthening exercises and stretching routines
- Physical therapy
- Use heat or cold packs
- Take hot Epsom salt baths
- Assess your sleeping and sitting positions and adjust to more appropriate ergonomic postures
- Try using lumbar back support cushions if sitting for long periods
- Get up and walk or stretch when forced to be seated for long periods
- Discuss anti-inflammatory supplements such as turmeric or omega 3 fatty acids with your health care provider
- Minimize activities that may worsen your pain like heavy lifting, sudden twisting motions or high impact sports
- If your back pain is associated with weakness or loss of sensation in your extremities make sure that you minimize your fall risk or any other potential causes of injury. Install appropriate support tools in the home to allow for safe mobility or ensure you have someone to help you when performing activities if you are uncertain if you can safely do them on your own.
Back pain affects millions of people each year and is actually one of the leading causes of doctors’ visits in the USA. Being proactive and incorporating strength and stretching exercises as well as maintaining a healthy weight can greatly decrease your chances of being affected or at the very least help you manage your current back pain. Slow, steady, and consistent commitment to some of the suggestions above can help you stay active and pain-free or with less pain as you navigate life’s activities and the natural aging process.