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7 tips for taking care of an aging back

Back aches and pains are common with age. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control, 33.7 percent of Americans over age 65 have recently experienced back pain, and that number is on the rise.

Your spine is composed of 24 bones, called vertebrae, that are linked together by tiny joints and separated by jelly-like discs that serve as a cushion. The vertebrae and discs are encased in the spinal cord and stabilized by ligaments.

As with any part of the body, age takes its toll on the spine, resulting in back pain and problems. Here are three of the most common causes of back pain after age 50:

  • Degenerative changes With age, the jelly-like discs between each vertebra can degenerate, losing moisture and resilience. This affects their ability to absorb shock to the vertebrae from everyday activities like walking.​
  • Spinal stenosis — A condition in which the spinal canal narrows and compresses the spinal cord and nerves. Spinal stenosis is typically caused by spinal degeneration with age, but can also be caused by conditions such as disc herniation or osteoporosis.
  • Spondylolisthesis — A condition in which one vertebra slips forward onto the vertebra below.

These conditions can cause inflammation or put pressure on the nerves in the spine, creating back pain. The good news is that back problems don’t have to get you down as you age. There are some things you can do to help prevent back problems or alleviate back pain associated with aging.

Stay physically active

The more active you are, the better you will feel as you age. Staying physically fit also means you’ll be able to bounce back sooner if and when you do experience back pain. Work with a certified fitness trainer who can help guide you through exercises that target the muscles that support the spine.

Stretch regularly

Good posture is important for preventing back pain, and to keep your posture straight and tall, regular stretching is a necessity to improve range of motion. If you’re working a desk job, get up for a few minutes every half hour to stretch, walk or stand.

Strengthen your core

The muscles in your abdomen and pelvic area help stabilize your back, creating a foundation for good posture. Keep your core strong with exercises like yoga or Pilates.

Lift weights

Strength-training exercises can help improve bone density, preventing bone thinning and osteoporosis, which can cause you to slump as you age.

Eat healthy

Calcium and vitamin D are two nutrients that are essential for bone and muscle health. Most people get enough vitamin D from a healthy diet and spending time in the sun, but your doctor can help you determine if you might need a vitamin D supplement. Most people also get enough calcium from eating a healthy diet, so ask your doctor before taking a calcium supplement.

Avoid bed rest

If you do experience back pain, resist the temptation to stay in bed until you feel better. A lack of physical activity causes muscle weakness, which only increases back pain and problems. Stay active, and as much as you can tolerate it, continue daily activities and exercise. Some rest may be necessary if you experience a back injury, but try to avoid staying in bed any longer than 48 hours.

Consider therapies

Some people find relief from their back pain through therapies such as chiropractic care or physical therapy. Combining these therapies with conventional treatment can help manage pain and improve functionality.

If you are experiencing age-related back pain, it’s important to first determine that your pain is not caused by an injury or damage to your spine that requires treatment. If your aches and pains are simply related to use and age, pain medications, physical therapy and exercise can help. In some cases, spine surgery may be necessary to treat the condition that is causing your back pain.

About Vivek Kushwaha

Vivek P. Kushwaha attended the University of Texas at Austin where he earned his B.A. from the College of Natural Sciences. He then earned his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio, Texas.

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