How To Look After Your Back Later In Life
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Sedentary Lifestyles Are To Blame
“A lack of both physical activity and mobility takes its toll on the body in many ways, but especially so when it comes to back health. Over the years, this can lead to a loss of muscle mass, reduction in flexibility, lumbar flexion and a decreased ability to bear load. And, over time, an absence of activity puts us progressively at a greater disadvantage physically. Ultimately, a sedentary lifestyle reduces the mobility of the lower back, hips, knees and ankles, which also reduces the strength of the core, lower back and lower limb muscles. Frequent back and neck pain and sciatica are signs your back could do with attention. At the same time, years of bad posture can result in kyphosis (an abnormal curvature of the neck and spine), which can lead to a ‘hunchback’ posture.” – Michael Fatica, consultant osteopath for The Back In Shape programme
Back Pain Can Manifest In Different Ways
“Back pain in the over 50s is often caused by one of three common conditions. The first is related to your spinal discs, which are gel-like cushions that sit between bones in your spine. With age, these can lose hydration and become thinner as a result, making them less effective at absorbing shock, which can increase your chance of getting a herniated disc. Back pain can also be linked to arthritis, which is where degenerative changes happen within the spine, leading to increased pressure on your joints, causing inflammation and pain. Spinal stenosis, meanwhile, occurs because of degenerative changes causing your spinal canal to become narrower. Narrowing of the spinal canal can place pressure onto the spinal cord and nerves, which can subsequently lead to symptoms of pain, numbness or pins and needles-like sensations developing.” – Karen Gambardella, MSK physiotherapist for Bupa Health Clinics
Women Are More Prone To Lower Back Pain
“As women have smaller sacroiliac joints than men, this can cause lower back pain. Plus, for women over the age of 50, the menopause can cause a reduction in oestrogen levels, which can cause a degradation of spinal discs, loosening of the ligaments and higher abdominal weight – these all accumulate and may create spondylolisthesis where loose vertebral bodies cause spinal instability.” – Cheryl Lythgoe, matron at Benenden Health
Pain On One Side Could Be Scoliosis
“The menopause affects the quality, strength and resistance of your bones and joints. With age, the joints and discs in the spine start to collapse in the lumbar (lower part of the spine), discs can then protrude and eventually slip which can cause a scoliosis, especially if it was something you were born with. Physically, the first thing you may feel is pain on one side of your body – this is due to the spine twisting, as well as a pulling feeling, which is the lateral muscles being pulled across the ribcage. Over time, this can lead to neck ache, headaches, and then central and lower back pain. You may also notice you don’t look symmetrical and one shoulder may protrude forward, lifting the shoulder blade. Resistance training with weights or any load-bearing exercise is proven to increase bone density and will help. Also look for a yoga or Pilates trainer who specialises in scoliosis.” – Caroline Freedman, PT and author of The Scoliosis Handbook
Taking Swift Action Can Make All The Difference
“If you are struggling, your GP can refer you to a neurologist or spinal surgeon for consultation. However, the unfortunate reality is that, given the current strains on the NHS, these referral routes often involve many weeks of waiting, sometimes months. When we consider that back pain moves into a ‘chronic’ phase after 12 weeks, it is much better, where possible, to seek assistance earlier on through an osteopath, physiotherapist or chiropractor. These professionals will be able to offer a detailed investigation, which often yields greater results.” – Michael
Try Swimming: “Swimming is a great way to gently strengthen and stimulate the muscles in your back. Swimming is low-impact yet aerobic – not only does it relieve pressure on the joints and spine, but it also gives your back muscles a full work out. If you’re not a fan of swimming, you can also try rolling up a bath towel and placing it underneath your lower back to encourage the natural backward arch. This takes the pressure off the spine discs and helps alleviate the build-up of pressure.” – Michael
Take Preventative Action: “Frequent aches or stiffness in the lower back is a sign that your body is not as strong as it should be. Often, such aches and pains predate more significant issues by months if not years. Paying attention earlier on can give you a great opportunity to take action on your terms, rather than waiting to be forced to take action following an injury.” – Michael
Perform A Chest Pop: “Push your chest out to help engage and brace the muscles between your shoulder blades. This helps to prevent you ‘rounding over’ at the thoracic spine and increasing loading on the low back. Get into the habit of doing this regularly.” – Michael
Adopt Good Habits: “Avoid any position for long periods of time – whether it’s fidgeting, moving around regularly or adjusting position. This will keep your muscles awake and engaged. Always hold technology devices at eye level and avoid looking down.” – Michael
Be Patient: “Building a stronger body is a process that occurs at a cellular level. These changes take time and require small incremental improvements over a long period of time. People often overestimate what they can achieve in one month, and significantly underestimate what one year of consistency will do. Incremental progress over the long term beats all else.” – Michael
Stay Active: “Even the most immobile of us can make inroads into improving our movement levels. Try marching on the spot whilst waiting for the kettle to boil or doing squats whilst brushing your teeth. Gentle movement allows fluidity for the musculoskeletal system and enables range of movement, which is vital when it comes to spinal health.” – Cheryl
Work On Your Core: “It’s not about having the abs of an Olympic athlete, but rather having a strong, firm core to support your mid and lower spine. If you have weak abs, you’ll find your posture struggles, which can distort the position of the spine, developing muscle spasms and pain. Abdominal strength isn’t about doing numerous sit-ups, but instead about engaging your core – try yoga or Pilates.” – Cheryl
Ignore Strength Work: “One of the most common mistakes women make is spending too much time on stretching and ignoring strength work. Using weights will provide your back and lower body joints with more support and protection and will offset bone density changes. It’s never too late to start, but the earlier you do, the more progress you will make.” – Michael
Forget About Diet: “The muscular and connective tissue that makes up much of our supporting structures, for example, the discs in your spine, the ligaments around your joints and the tendons and muscles, are all derived from protein. Protein is one of the most overlooked aspects of nutrition for women later in life, so ensure you are getting adequate amounts daily.” – Michael
Round Your Back: “Rounding the lower back to quickly relieve back pain is an unhelpful attempt at a quick fix and is ultimately a waste of time as it doesn’t address the underlying problem. Doing this can actually worsen your pain by replicating the strains that caused the original injury.” – Michael
Stretch Excessively: “Most of the time, it is a significant lack of strength in muscles that are chronically stretched all day (think an awful, slumped posture at a desk) that contributes to back pain. Building core strength as well as strength in surrounding muscles provides protection for the injured tissues so they can recover effectively.” – Michael
Do Too Much, Too Soon: “Many of the common mistakes women make when it comes to looking after their back are centred around exercising. Whether you’re a beginner or have fitness experience, always start a workout with a warm-up and never exercise when you are in pain. Take things easy and gently stretch until you’re able to exercise safely.” – Karen
Limit Your Options: “There’s more to staying on top of pain than with painkillers. Heat patches, TENS machines and topical muscle relaxants can all help, while studies show acupuncture can also help. Manual manipulation undertaken by a chiropractor may also relieve symptoms.” – Cheryl
Underestimate Mindfulness: “Mindful meditation can be great at managing back pain. Techniques include deep breathing, amending thought processes and rewiring how your body responds to pain, which can support healing and management.” – Cheryl
For more information and support visit BackInShapeProgram.com, Benenden.co.uk, Bupa.co.uk and ScoliosisHandbook.com.
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