Are you one of the
millions of people living with chronic
back pain? Have you been told by a medical provider your pain is
due to arthritis? Or there is nothing that can be done about your back pain?
Cases of chronic low
back pain, which is pain lasting longer than 3 months, tend to increase with
age. The message we hear the most often is that pain is due to structural
changes within the spine. But research has shown that the risk factors for
developing chronic pain aren’t related to injury or tissue damage.
Let’s take a look at
what the actual risk factors are and when you should seek medical advice if
you’ve been living with chronic low back pain.
Is There a Correlation Between Back Pain and Age?
Approximately one in
three adults over the age of 60 will experiences low back pain. What’s often
left out of the discussion of chronic low back pain is that aging of the spine
is perfectly normal. Yes, it’s not even abnormal to start seeing signs
of arthritis on imaging as young as age 30!
arthritic changes within your joints don’t have to lead to chronic pain or
limited quality of life.
So, what gives and
where is your back pain really coming from?
Naturally, age causes
an increase in low back pain, but it’s usually not the reason why the pain is
there in the first place.
There are normal and
expected changes in the spine that come with age, including changes
in posture, a decline in strength, signs of arthritis in the
joints, and changes
in flexibility. The great news is that any of these can be
prevented or easily reversed with the right approach.
According to research
though, pain is more complex than just physical changes. The majority of low
back pain in older adults is not due to a specific problem, like broken
vertebrae or bulging discs.
When an MRI is
ordered, it’s highly likely that any of us will show some kind of damage within
the spine. But more often than not, the physical changes detected with imaging
are not the source of pain.
Research has shown
spinal changes associated with aging detected on an MRI have no correlation
with low back pain, especially with age. For example, spinal disc breakdown is
more likely to show up on an MRI as people age but is less likely to be a
source of pain
in older adults than younger adults.
In fact, 60% of
adults over 60 years of age will show abnormal MRI results, regardless of
whether or not they have pain. Which tells that MRI results are not giving us
the full story of the root of chronic pain.
And in taking a
closer look, there is really not much difference in reported pain levels
between younger and older adults. So, pain is likely not being caused by
changes that come with age.
Similar to symptoms
of back pain in a younger population, the pain older adults experience changes depending
on the time of day, with specific activities, or position changes.
What Is Most Often Behind Chronic Pain: A Flared
Up Nervous System and Life Stress
We know that adults over
the age of 60 are statistically more likely to experience chronic low back
pain. However, this has more to do with changes in pain perception that come
with age as well as other risk factors including income level, prior work
exposure, anxiety, and depression.
Advancing age, as a
factor on its own, does not increase the risk of low back pain, but the
incidence of other risk factors correlated with pain increases with age.
The first thing you
should know is that your body is very resilient. Your spine is a highly stable
structure – one wrong move won’t just cause the whole thing to crumble. That
being said, we can be more mindful of movement for pain relief but avoiding
movement is not encouraged.
When Should You Seek Medical Advice?
It’s important to
note that most cases of acute, or new, back pain go away on their own within
several weeks. Only a small percentage of people with acute low back pain will
develop chronic pain, which continues for 3 months or more.
So, if you’re living
with chronic low back pain, when is it time to seek medical advice?
It’s always advised
to inform your physician if you’ve been experiencing any level of persistent
pain. Especially when that pain is accompanied by other red flag symptoms like
changes in appetite, loss of bowel or bladder control, or night sweats.
Your doctor can work
with you to determine a course of action and might recommend further tests to
get to the bottom of what is going on. If imaging is recommended, be sure to
request a follow up appointment to review the results.
What Can You Do About Your Back Pain?
The great news is,
there are many options for steps you can take to both lower the risk of
back pain and improve your symptoms.
for cases of low back pain have changed over the last few years, and the old
practice of bed rest for pain is now strongly discouraged. Movement is much
more effective than rest for reducing pain levels.
There is no one
specific type of exercise that has a benefit over another in terms of pain, so
the best program for you is one that you will be excited enough to do!
dancing, to yoga, walking, or Crossfit all have benefits not just for back pain
but overall health. It might take a little trial and error but there’s no
reason you can’t get started today.
Activities as simple
as walking for 30 minutes five or more days per week and strengthening exercises
two or more days per week lower the risk of chronic low back pain.
Managing other risk
factors like poor sleep, anxiety, and depression through conservative
treatments like counseling and meditation is one of the most important pieces
of the puzzle! To get a jump start, check out this wonderful guide and
workbook walking you through your chronic pain experience.
If you aren’t sure
where to start or have other health conditions, a physical or occupational
therapist can help safely establish a plan of attack for your back pain.
Remember, changes within the spine are a normal part of aging but should never
limit how you live your life!
And finally, be sure
to continue to have discussions with your medical provider about what
treatments you can consider.
steps can you take to start to manage your back pain today? Have you been
ignoring the signs of lower back pain? What is stopping you from reaching out
to your medical provider? Have you tried exercise to decrease the pain? What
are the results? Please share with our community!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor to get specific medical advice for your situation.