Oh my Aging Aching Back!
Wine and cheese get better with age but aging does not work like this with humans. Many of our health problems like back pain get worse with aging or begin with aging.
Degenerative Disc Disease and Spinal Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis has been shown to be linked with aging and is a major cause of disability in seniors. While osteoarthritis can strike any joint in the body, it is particularly bad if it strikes the spine. Degenerative disc disease and spinal osteoarthritis may appear to begin in our senior years and first become noticeable because of back pain. However, a study published May 17, 2018 in the Spine Journal by the Hebrew Senior Life Institute for Aging Research and Boston Medical Center shows that:
A third of people ages 40-59 were found to have moderate to severe degenerative disc disease and more than half had moderate to severe spinal osteoarthritis. This was seen on CT imaging and shows that in a third of people, osteoarthritis is already damaging joints before old age sets in.
In seniors ages 60-69 and 70-89 imaging showed that spinal disc height narrowing (DHN) and facet joint osteoarthritis (FJOA) increased two to four times.
The increases and worsening of all of these back conditions occurred 40-70% more often in women than in men.
The Framingham Spine Health Study
This was a large study based on information from families and their descendants who had been living in Framingham, Massachusetts from the 1940s. The researchers examined CT scans on 1195 people that were taken six years apart to determine how severe and to what degree disc degeneration and spinal osteoarthritis had set in.
Diagnosing Back Pain
The first step to treating back pain is to find out what exactly is causing it and you or your loved one must be seen by a doctor and possibly an orthopedic surgeon. There are many causes of back pain and back pain can be from more than one cause. You doctor may order lab blood tests, X-rays, CT, MRI or ultrasound. Only after receiving the true picture, can a decision be made concerning which is the best treatment regime to follow. While some of these medical conditions are age-related, your pain may not necessarily be only from aging:
- Spinal Osteoarthritis
- Degenerative disc disease
- Spinal Stenosis
- Orthopedic cervical and lumbar disc problems
- Muscle spasms
- Kidney infections
- Kidney stones
- Gall bladder disease and stones
- Viral infections
- Uterine infections and prolapse
- Urinary tract infections (UTI)
- Prostate problems
- Tumors and cancer, including pancreatic cancer and more.
Treating Back Pain
Chiropractic and Osteopathic Medicine
If it turns out that the back pain is from a spine or disc problem, the best option may be to take all lab results, x-rays and imaging scans to a qualified chiropractor. A slipped disc can give you agonizing back pain that radiates down your legs like sciatica or down your shoulders, arms and hands from your neck, cervical radiculopathy. Strong painkillers may temporarily relieve the pain, but do not cure the problem that is causing it.
Chiropractors may use deep heat and a traction-like machine to warm up your back. Then they will gently manipulate the spine to correct conditions like misaligned discs that are pinching on nerves. Once the back is properly aligned, the chiropractor will recommend an exercise program to strengthen your back muscles in the hope that this will prevent further deterioration of the spine.
If the back pain is more from tendons, ligaments and muscles, then it may be best to go to an osteopathic doctor.
If the back pain is from osteoarthritis, the best treatment usually is to do physical exercises to strengthen muscles surrounding the joints. This will help to keep the joints open and flexible. Otherwise the joints may become fossilized, will no longer move and will become more stiff and painful. However, you should have medical or chiropractic guidance as to which exercises are safe to do. Physical exercise also improves blood circulation, helps maintain proper weight, improves self-confidence and promotes relaxation and better sleep.
Physical Therapy and Water Therapy
Physical therapy, especially swimming and water therapy are considered to be among the best non-drug treatments.
Water therapy – also called aquatic therapy, is very relaxing and reduces weight put on the joints. A qualified aquatic therapist teaches physical exercises to people in a pool, which is usually heated. In the pool, people find themselves able to do exercises without pain that they would never be able to do out of water. This also produces a lot of good feelings.
Acupuncture can also do a lot to heal painful back problems, often when other treatments fail. Acupuncture is also safer than manipulation treatments in patients suffering from osteoporosis. Acupuncture can treat back, knee and hip pain from osteoarthritis, muscle and ligament sprains, and neuralgias like those from shingles (herpes zoster). Many people have been saved from surgery by choosing acupuncture in cases where other treatment options did not succeed. Acupuncture is the use of tiny, sterile needles inserted into the skin at special nerve points to relieve pain, strengthen the back and promote healing (at least 7-10 or more treatments). It is crucial to use a licensed qualified acupuncturist. In the US, licensing of qualified practitioners of acupuncture is by the states and the requirements vary from state to state. In fact, a few states only allow MDs, chiropractors or osteopaths to practice acupuncture.
Massage and Compresses
Extra-virgin olive oil can be rubbed into inflamed joints before going to bed at night and before getting out of bed in the morning. It is quickly absorbed into the skin. It can relieve back pain and inflammation.
A hot castor oil pack reduces inflammation and thus helps against back pain, including muscle spasms, arthritis and sprains. It stimulates the flow of lymph and speeds up healing. Castor oil should be massaged into the back and covered with flannel that also has castor oil on it (not soaking) and a hot water bottle for at least an hour.
Hot Mineral Sulfur Pools
For thousands of years people have sought relief from the suffering of arthritis, painful back and neck problems, sore and tight muscles and sprains in hot mineral – mainly sulfur pools. This is one of the best ways to get rid of inflammation and stress. Some of these hot springs and pools have spas on their premises that also offer various kinds of healing like chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture, reflexology and various types of massages.
Caution: Hot thermal pools can lower blood pressure, so seniors on blood pressure lowering drugs or with cardiovascular problems must not immerse in hot mineral pools without the permission of their doctors.
Studies show that eating cooked broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables in the cruciferous family may prevent or slow down the progression of osteoarthritis. See our blog post from February 28, 2019 for more about the super-food broccoli.
Extra-virgin olive oil has been scientifically shown to have pain-relieving qualities similar to Ibuprofen, but without any side effects. Use only extra-virgin olive oil in all cooking, baking, frying (low temperature), salads and vegetables. Dip bread in olive oil that can be spiced up by mixing it with crushed garlic or oregano. Read more about extra virgin olive oil in our blog post from April 9, 2019.
Surgery on the spine is not without risks so it is crucial to get a “second opinion.”
Short-term Rehabilitation and Sub-acute Care
If you or your loved one are in need of short-term rehabilitation and sub-acute care, the Park Crescent Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in East Orange, New Jersey is well-known for its expert care at the hands of a warm and caring staff. Park Crescent also has a state-of-the-art gym.
Seniors should not wait until they are over age 65 to begin taking care of their backs and spines. Imaging in this Framingham study showed that degenerative changes in discs and osteoarthritis of the spine were already visible at age 40 in a third of people. Back pain should not be ignored, as medical intervention can sometimes stop or retard the degeneration of discs in the spine.