By some estimates, up to 50 percent of seniors suffer from chronic back pain. In fact, back pain is the “most prevalent health condition in older adults that leads to functional limitations and disability,” according to a study published in the Journal of Pain Research. Although many medical factors may contribute to the prevalence of painful back conditions, an individual can take steps to help avoid pain in the future. Here are some tips to consider:
- Good posture is very important. Good posture, even while seated, is all but indispensable to preventing (or alleviating) back pain. The basic idea is to keep your spine in a “neutral” position when standing. That means you should not slouch, but neither should you try to assume the rigid posture of a Marine standing at attention. Rather, let your spine form a very gentle S curve, a position that reduces the stress on back muscles. When seated, keep your feet flat on the floor and avoid crossing your legs. You may also want to consider getting a chair designed specifically to keep your back straight. A lumbar pillow to maintain the normal curve of the spine may also be useful.
- How you sleep matters, too. Many sleep experts say sleeping on one’s back is the best position to assume for the spine, with the pillow slightly raising your neck to support the spine’s natural shape. Those who prefer sleeping on one side should consider placing a separate pillow between the knees to help support the lower back. When you are ready to get out of bed, avoid lifting your body forward using your back. Instead, roll on your side and use your arm to help prop your body up.
- Do not lift with your back. This is extremely important when lifting objects of any size or weight from the floor or from any low position; use the muscles in your legs, not your back. That means, bend at the knees, not at the waist. If you have knee problems that might prevent this maneuver, ask someone to help you. Use discretion about attempting to lift any heavy package; know your own limits. Be careful also about wearing back-packs containing heavy materials.
- Losing weight might help. If you are carrying extra pounds, they might be putting stress on your back and contribute to pain. Eat a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables and reduce the intake of sugar and processed foods.
- Don’t Smoke. Smoking appears to be a risk factor for back pain for a variety of reasons. The Mayo Clinic says smoking can interfere with the delivery of essential nutrients to the discs of the spine. In addition, a study conducted at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, found that smoking affects two interconnected regions of the brain in a way that makes a person more vulnerable to back pain. Furthermore, some pain specialists point out that smoking can worsen certain conditions common to seniors that make back pain more likely, including osteoporosis and hardening of the arteries. It all adds up to one more good reason to avvoid smoking.
Given the prevalence of back pain among seniors, and the negative impact it can have on quality of life, the subject of avoiding or minimizing back pain deserves more attention. Use these tips as a guideline to proactively take steps to make sure the spine and back muscles remain as healthy as possible as we age.