As we age, many of us start feeling aches and pains, particularly in our backs. So, apart from taking countless painkillers – many of which have side effects – what can be done?
The spine is made up of 24 bones leading from the skull to the tailbone and linked by small joints which are called facets. In between, we have discs, which are filled with a jelly-like substance, that serve as tiny cushions to lessen the impact of our movements.
There are three main causes of back pain in the over 50s.
DEGENERATIVE CHANGES IN DISCS AND JOINTS
Degenerative changes are due to lack of fluid and resilience which can make discs less effective in doing their job as shock absorbers.
There is a small canal which runs through your spinal cord. Disc degeneration can cause this to narrow, especially in the lower back.
This occurs when a spinal vertebra slips forward onto the vertebra directly below it.
SO, WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The finest way to relieve back pain is to be more physically active and stay physically active. It may hurt a little at first, but gradually you will notice the benefits.
Doctors and physio therapists can give you a back-strengthening exercise program to help you gain strength and improve your flexibility and balance. By strengthening your abdominal (core) and back muscles, your spine will become stronger and less painful.
Anti-inflammatory medications such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can temporarily relieve back pain, but opioids should be avoided where possible.
Applying an ice pack for 20 minutes or so can relieve pain in some people.
Heat pads, taking warm baths or using a heat lamp can be a great pain reliever, though not a cure.
The heat stimulates blood flow and relaxes back muscles. This should be followed by light stretches and exercise.
As we age we tend to take a longer time to recover from injuries, so if you ’put your back out’, gentle stretching is a better solution than simply lying down. In fact, going to bed for more than 48 hours can actually increase the duration and intensity of back pain and slow down your recovery.
Practitioners insert tiny needles into specific areas of the body and move them around gently. It is thought that this can relieve pain by stimulating the body’s own healing process. This doesn’t work for everybody, but many people find it very effective.
Osteopaths or chiropractors use their hands to manipulate the body and stimulate and massage the spine and surrounding areas. Once again, though, it may relieve symptoms but it is not a cure in most cases.
There are, of course, other options for back pain sufferers, but in all cases you should consult your doctor and seek advice.
If none of the above therapies work for you and the pain becomes debilitating, then surgical intervention may become necessary; though in the vast majority of cases doctors and specialists try to avoid this as, in some cases, it increases pain rather than relieves it and can lead to further complications.