Getting to the bottom of back pain

A combination of age, inactivity or, sometimes, overactivity

A combination of age, inactivity or, sometimes, overactivity causes boomers and seniors to slather on back-pain ointments and creams, hoping for a little relief, especially in summer, when outdoor activities kick into high gear. (Credit: iStock)

If you're 50 or older, there's one common phrase you probably have expressed at some time: "Oh, my aching back."

A combination of age, inactivity or, sometimes, overactivity causes boomers and seniors to slather on back-pain ointments and creams, hoping for a little relief, especially in summer, when outdoor activities kick into high gear. The good news: The Journal of the American Medical Association says most back pain is "uncomplicated and self-limited," meaning it goes away in a short period and is rarely caused by something serious. The bad news: It hurts.

While the specific cause of most back pain is unknown, the reason it happens is not. "A lot of this is degenerative stuff, wear-and-tear stuff," says Dr. James Cable at the Texas Back Institute. Cable, who specializes in recreational back injuries, sees a lot of older "weekend warriors" who have wrenched, twisted or strained their backs.

Many of the back ailments this time of year are garden variety -- literally. Cable says gardeners often strain their backs because they try to lift heavy bags of soil or heavy pots. Older golfers, out of shape after a long winter, also are prone to back problems, especially if they swing too hard.

Arthritis can contribute to recurring back pain. Cable says about half the population, at age 40, display some arthritic changes in their backs on their X-rays. "That goes up to about 70 percent at age 50, and 85 percent at age 60," he says.

For most people, back pain will get better without medical help. Even a ruptured disc often will heal on its own, without surgery, although it could take several months. The American Medical Association says to see a doctor if the pain doesn't get better after a week. But see a doctor immediately if back pain is accompanied by a fever.

Many problems can be traced to inactivity. "We fight the battle of people who have been sitting on the couch for too long and are deconditioned," Cable says. "We've known for years the best opportunity for people to avoid injuries is to have good core strengthening, have a good general level of conditioning."

And even if you exercise and stay in shape, your aging back may finally betray you, anyway. "It may be something fairly simple that causes that disc to blow," Cable says. "It may just be getting out of bed in the morning."

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