What You Should Know About Normal Aging of the Spine and Chronic Back Pain After 60
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!
More importantly, 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.
The recommendations 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!
Anything from 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.
What 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.