Is Back Pain Avoidable as We Age?
Whether it’s that first grey hair or needing to throw on some reading glasses, there are a few things as we get older that just kind of seem, well, inevitable. But can the same be said for back pain?
Unfortunately, there is some degree of truth to the matter, says Carson Fairbanks, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Orthopedic Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice.
“I often say that back pain is a disease of wisdom — not old age — and the longer we spend on a planet with gravity, the greater the chances of having back pain are,” Fairbanks explains. “Studies have shown that close to 85% of people experience one or more episodes of back pain in their lifetime.”
So should you accept daily back pain as something that is just bound to happen eventually, or is there something you can do about it? First you have to understand what causes back pain.
Most people notice back pain between the ages of 40 and 60 years old. However, Fairbanks notes that you may start to experience back pain as early as your 20’s and 30’s.
While aches and pains every now and then are to be expected, especially after an increase (or drastic decrease) in activity, there are three main culprits that are associated with age-related back pain: arthritis, degenerative disc conditions, spinal stenosis.
While you may think of arthritis more commonly in regard to knee or hip pain, it can occur anywhere in your body where two joints meet.
“There are two joints at every bone in your back that connect one bone to another,” Fairbanks explains. “These joints are just like all the other joints in your body as they have cartilage and joint fluid. And just like every other joint in the body these joints can have wear and tear arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis.”
The inflammation caused by arthritis in these joints tends to cause back pain that is worse first thing in the morning and associated with stiffness. Appropriately, the pain associated with osteoarthritis is often relieved by getting up and moving around, or using a heating pad to loosen things up.
Back pain associated with arthritis is most commonly seen in individuals between the ages of 40 and 60.
Unlike arthritis which can occur all over the body, degenerative disc conditions can only occur in your spine and neck. Discs are the soft cushions in between the bones of the spine that allow motion and compression. Unfortunately, discs can rupture and cause irritation of the nerves in the spine from direct pressure.
“Disc themselves also have small sensory nerves in them and if they are damaged it can cause back pain without pressure on the big nerves in the spine,” Fairbanks adds.
Back pain associated with disc conditions is most commonly seen in individuals between the ages of 40 and 60, but can also be seen in the 20- to 40-year-old crowd when associated with postural dysfunction, or in laymen’s terms, bad posture.
Spinal stenosis occurs when there’s a narrowing of the spinal canal that crowds the nerves and puts pressure on the spinal cord. This can be caused by disc herniations, arthritis, bone spurs, tumors or instability in the spine.
Back pain associated with spinal stenosis is most commonly seen in individuals in the 60-plus age range.
When to See a Doctor
Many of these conditions present with more symptoms than just pain, which can help your doctor pinpoint the condition. But there are other, less common conditions that can cause concern, such as tumors, fractures or infections.
You should always see a physician if you have these symptoms in addition to back or neck pain:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Increased pain at night
- Bladder or bowel incontinence
- Pain that shoots down the legs
- Numbness or tingling
- Severe pain that doesn’t improve after rest
- Pain that occurs after you’ve fallen or experienced an injury
Even if you don’t experience these symptoms, there’s no harm in seeing a physician for your back pain, especially if it’s affecting your quality of life or your ability to work.
Things You Can Do to Avoid Back Pain
There are two main things everyone can do to help avoid back pain at all stages of life. For starters, maintaining a healthy weight is incredibly important. For every pound of body weight, 4 pounds of pressure is transferred to the musculoskeletal system when walking. That number increases to 8 pounds of pressure when running.
“So when you think about losing 10 pounds, you’re really reducing 40 pounds of pressure on your body when walking,” Fairbanks says.
Secondly, staying active, exercising, and focusing on core strength and posture is incredibly important. Low impact activities such as walking, jogging, aerobics, yoga and Pilates have been shown to be very effective in increasing core strength, improving cardiovascular health and keeping weight in a healthy range.
“I have seen patients who are in their 70’s and they exercise daily, stay thin, eat healthily daily, sometimes running marathons, hiking and playing golf or tennis daily well into their 80’s. And they tend to have less back pain,” he continues. “On the other side of the coin, I have seen patients in their 20’s who are at an unhealthy weight and they do not exercise or focus on their core strength and posture and they have significant back pain.”
So, Is It Normal or Not?
In short, yes, it’s completely normal for back pain to pop up as you age, but age is not the main contributing factor to back pain.
“Age is just a number. It plays less of a role in back pain than you may think,” says Fairbanks. “The idea of ‘physiologic age,’ or your overall health and fitness, matters much more than the number on your birthday candles.
“Back and neck pain may not be completely avoidable at times, but many causes of pain have treatment options that can significantly improve pain and function,” he continues. “Your physician may prescribe home exercise, formal physical therapy, weight loss, medications, spinal injections, or surgery depending on the severity, the cause, and your wishes.”
Ready to schedule an appointment? Find a back and spine specialist on the medical staff near you.