Do you remember the last time you were pain-free? Unfortunately in many older adults those days are few and far between. Perhaps you get twinges in your knees when you climb stairs, in your shoulders when you’re gardening, or in your back when you’re tying your shoelaces? Pain can make simple activities of daily living a real challenge as we get older, as well as significantly impact emotional well-being—in a small 2021 study, older adults living with back pain reported feelings of anguish, unhappiness, and helplessness due to chronic discomfort.
When you suffer from pain in your back and/or other joints, you may tend to focus on the symptoms and reach for the painkillers. Some people take to their beds in the hope the pain will ease. In fact, bed rest may slow your recovery from back pain—instead, try to keep active, since movement often provides the best long-term relief of back pain. I recommend you ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist, who can determine what is causing your pain and develop an individualized treatment plan. The plan may include exercises to strengthen the muscles that move and stabilize your spine, massage therapy to relax tight tissues and joints and improve their mobility, and advice on how to care for your back and avoid future injury.
Your physical therapist will likely show you simple stretches you can do at home. These can be very effective if—like most people—you’ve fallen into the habit of using your body in certain ways that may cause muscle tightness and raise your risk of muscle strain. Tight muscles limit fluid movement, and if you aren’t using your muscles’ full range of motion, further tightness may result, making you even more vulnerable to injury. Another activity that can help alleviate muscle tightness is yoga (see our article for more), which combines stretching with meditation that may help you cope better with the emotional effects of chronic pain.
Improving your body mechanics also is key to avoiding and alleviating back pain, and it’s something your physical therapist will likely cover in the education component of your treatment plan. Body mechanics are essentially “proper” body movements that prevent and correct pain that arises from poor posture and can affect your back, shoulders, and neck. Think about it: how often do you bend at the waist to pick something up, slouch on the couch in the evenings, or wedge the phone between your ear and you shoulder so you can chat hands-free?
Instead, aim to develop back-healthy habits. If you need to lift something, bend at the knees, hold the object as close to your body as possible, tighten your abdominal muscles, and push up with your thigh muscles. If you need to turn to place the object somewhere, turn your whole body—don’t twist at the waist. Don’t stay sitting or standing in the same position for long periods of time—try to move, or even get up and go for a short walk. If you’re driving, try to shift in the seat occasionally, and if the seat doesn’t provide good lumbar support, position a rolled-up towel behind your lower back. If you’re driving a long distance, schedule regular breaks so you can get out of the car and walk). When you are sitting, keep your feet flat on the floor, with your knees slightly higher than your hips and bent at a 90°angle (place them on a low footstool if necessary). If you hike, use a backpack with wide shoulder straps and a lumbar belt to redistribute the weight of your load from your spine to your hips (and avoid overstuffing your back pack).
You should also try to lose weight if you need to, since the heavier you are, the heavier the load your spine has to support. Quit smoking if you still engage in the habit—some research suggests that smokers have more frequent episodes of back pain, and they also tend to lose bone density faster than non-smokers. This places them at greater risk for the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis, which can result in vertebral fractures. And think about your mattress—it should be firm enough to support your spine. If it’s time for a new mattress, go to a showroom and try a variety of options before choosing one. Also ask about the return policy if you find the mattress doesn’t suit you.
Being proactive about tackling aches and pains can go a long way towards gaining control over them so that painkillers aren’t your first resort. But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t also try heat pads, warm baths, and over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), if pain limits your activities. And keep in mind that pain that worsens warrants a call to your doctor.
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