As we age, we often hear from parts of our bodies that have run on “auto pilot” forever—a knee hurts, our back aches, we wake up stiff and sore. Many of us immediately reach for the painkillers, but some of these can cause harmful side effects in older adults—in fact, the Food and Drug Administration recently strengthened the warning labels for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) because of the risk for side effects. If you would like to investigate other methods of pain relief, we’re looking at drug-free options in this month’s issue. As well as helping to ease discomfort, some of these approaches also may help address the root cause of your pain. Older adults are particularly at risk of lower back pain and joint pain relating to arthritis, and there is evidence that acupuncture can help ease both. Recent studies suggest it also is effective for migraine and tension headaches. It’s not clear how acupuncture works, but it’s possible that it stimulates production of the body’s natural painkillers and anti-inflammatory agents. Back, neck and shoulder pain also may respond to yoga, which stretches and strengthens muscles—I’m a firm believer that strong muscles can be key to avoiding chronic back pain—and also helps to improve posture, which often plays a role in musculoskeletal pain. Your local senior center and/or YMCA likely offers yoga sessions, and you also can set aside 15 minutes daily at home for simple stretching exercises. If you’re having muscular or joint pain, ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist who is experienced in working with older adults. Aside from these tactics, something as simple as a hot shower first thing in the morning, followed by stretching, can ease sore muscles and stiff, aching joints. Massage also can help. You should always try to determine what causes your pain to get worse, and what makes it better—these are keys to helping you avoid pain in the first place. And keep in mind that not all discomfort can be eased without taking painkillers. Your goal isn’t to stop all pain medication—it’s to manage your pain so that you’re able to do as many of the things you want to as possible, and this may require a combination of drugs and non-pharmaceutical approaches. For example, some people whose walking is limited by knee pain find that taking acetaminophen before a walk allows them to get the exercise that can help ease their joint discomfort without the pain. You should inform your doctor about any alternative methods of pain relief you use, and tell your complementary therapist about any conventional medications you take, and health issues you may have. Above all, it is vital to remember that pain is a symptom that signals a problem. Always let your doctor know if you have pain that persists, as it may be caused by a serious underlying condition.
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