As you get older, you might notice your back bothers you more than it used to. People aged 45 and up are much more likely to experience back pain than younger people, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Jonathan Landsman, MD, a spine surgeon with Banner Brain & Spine, explained that seniors are at risk of all the same things that cause back pain in younger people, such as strains and sprains. And on top of that, age-related factors such as inflammation and degeneration can also contribute to back pain in older people.
Here are some reasons you might be experiencing back pain as you age and what you can do to help reduce your risk.
1. Your core is weak
A weak core can contribute to back pain at any age. But since your muscles lose strength, endurance and flexibility as you get older, seniors are more likely to have weak cores than younger people. If you use your arms to get up from a chair, that’s a sign that you might not have enough strength in your core.
What you can do: With your doctor’s approval, build core strength with an exercise routine.
2. You sit too much
Maybe you’re working and spend long stretches at a desk or behind the wheel. Or perhaps you’re retired and not as active as you used to be. You could also be working from home, and you don’t have an ergonomic office setup. These factors may contribute to the pain you’re feeling in your back.
What you can do: Take breaks every 30 minutes or so to walk around, stretch and give your back a break from the same position. If possible, organize your home workspace so your back is supported correctly.
3. You’re overweight
People who are overweight or obese are more likely to have lower back pain than those who aren’t. So, if the pounds have been gradually creeping on over the years, they might be causing your lower back pain. That’s because the excess weight could put more pressure on your spine and possibly the inflammation associated with obesity could contribute to back pain.
What you can do: Talk to a dietitian or your doctor to learn ways to modify your diet that might help you lose weight.
4. You’re lifting your grandchildren
As a parent, you probably leaned over to pick up your baby from the crib or swung a toddler up onto your hip without giving it a thought. As a grandparent, you’re probably out of practice when it comes to lifting children. And you might not be lifting them regularly, so your body isn’t accustomed to it.
What you can do: Use the same proper lifting techniques you’ve been taught all your life —keep the child close to you, squat down and lift with your legs, not your back. Don’t twist when you’re lifting.
5. You’ve developed arthritis
Osteoarthritis can develop in many of your body’s joints, including the spine. Along with back pain, you could notice stiffness or less flexibility in your back. Arthritis can also lead to spinal stenosis, where your spinal cord becomes compressed inside your spinal canal.
What you can do: Talk to your doctor about exercises that can help. You can also try non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), topical creams, prescription drugs and injections.
6. You’re depressed
Depression can cause physical symptoms like back pain, and back pain can cause mental health problems like depression. Medical conditions, stress, social isolation and functional limitations can contribute to depression in older people. And while we hear a lot about depression in young adults, it’s nearly as common in people aged 45 and older. Plus, older adults are less likely to seek care for mental health conditions.
What you can do: A combination of medication and therapy works for many people with depression. Ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health professional.
7. You’re not getting enough sleep
When you’re regularly not getting seven to nine hours of sleep, or you’re not getting restful, restorative sleep, you’re more likely to have back pain. Health conditions, medications and stress can impact your ability to sleep well as you get older.
What you can do: Practice good sleep hygiene —go to sleep at the same time every night and keep your bedroom cool, dark and comfortable. If you can’t remember the last time you replaced your mattress, consider upgrading it.
8. You smoke
You know about many of the ways smoking can harm your health, but you might not realize it’s linked to back pain. And people who smoke more cigarettes report more back pain.
What you can do: Try to cut back on smoking or quit altogether.
The bottom line
From weight gain to weak muscles to depression, seniors have factors that can put them at higher risk for back pain. But you can take steps to keep your back strong, healthy and pain-free.
Need help diagnosing and treating back pain?
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider near you.