Older Adults and Low Back Pain

Older Adults and Low Back Pain

Older Americans often have backaches. Here are some tips to help you manage the pain.

Falls, heavy lifting, or twisting can trigger back pain. In seniors, arthritis, disc problems, and spinal stenosis are just a few of the conditions that can also contribute to the pain.

Managing the pain

Though some back pain can signal a serious condition, most backaches heal on their own within a month, and sometimes within days. Bed rest is not usually needed.

To manage back pain:

  • Apply ice or heat for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Use a thin towel or other protection around the heat or cold to keep from injuring your skin. Do not use heat or cold if you have diabetes, circulation problems, or decreased sensation – unless your doctor suggests it.
  • Ask your doctor about over-the-counter pain medications. Some medications that may help include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin. But these medicines are not without risk. Check with your doctor first to make sure they are safe for you, especially if you have other medical conditions.
  • Decrease your activity for a couple of days. Avoid lifting, bending, or sitting for too long.
  • If your pain doesn’t get better in 48 hours, call your doctor. He or she will take a history and do a physical examination to further evaluate the cause of your symptoms.

Depending on the cause of your pain, physical therapy can often help you build up your strength and flexibility or learn proper body mechanics. Acupuncture may also help chronic back pain. Your doctor may prescribe medication. For more-serious symptoms that do not get better with these treatments, you may need to see a pain-management specialist. Sometimes, steroid injections may be tried. Surgery is advised in only a small number of cases.

An ounce of prevention

Back pain is often caused by years of small back injuries, bad posture, and unsafe lifting. Once you’ve had a back injury, you are more likely to have another. Prevention is important.

Steps for preventing back pain include:

  • Regular exercise to improve strength and flexibility. (Check with your doctor before increasing your level of activity.)
  • Bending at the knees and using your legs, not your back, when lifting.
  • Carrying heavy objects close to your body.
  • Losing extra weight to relieve strain on your lower back.
  • Not slouching or twisting.
  • Using a stool or asking for help when you can’t reach an object.
  • Not smoking. Smoking can harm spinal discs.
  • Relaxing. Stress can add to back pain.

Warning Signs

Call 9-1-1 if you have any of these warning signs along with back pain:

  • Sudden onset of severe tearing or ripping pain
  • Inability to move your arms or legs
  • Sudden chest pain or pain across your upper back, shoulders, arms, or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or passing out
  • Severe pain following a major fall or other accident

Also seek emergency medical help if you have:

  • Severe pain or sudden worsening of back pain
  • History of cancer or a weak immune system
  • New loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Sudden arm or leg numbness or weakness
  • Numbness in the parts of your body that would touch a saddle
  • Shaking chills

Call your doctor if your pain is not getting better or if it gets any worse. Also call your doctor if you have back pain along with fever, nausea, or vomiting.

Note about NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and aspirin:

NSAIDs are often advised for moderate-to-severe pain. NSAIDS can help reduce inflammation as well. Ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin are all NSAIDs that are sold over the counter. Stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription. All NSAIDs are linked with serious side effects, such as stomach bleeding, kidney disease, and possibly heart attack. Talk to your doctor about whether taking NSAIDs is safe for you. Certain NSAIDs may not be the best choice if you:

  • Are 65 or older
  • Have stomach bleeding or peptic ulcers
  • Have liver or kidney disease or a bleeding disorder
  • Drink more than 3 alcoholic drinks each day
  • Have high blood pressure or kidney, liver, or heart disease
  • Take medicine for high blood pressure, aspirin to protect your heart, or any sort of blood-thinning drugs

Aspirin or any aspirin-containing product should not be given to anyone age 18 or younger without a doctor’s approval because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome.

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