6 tips to prevent and relieve lower back pain in older adults

Excerpt: Lower back pain becomes more prevalent with aging and professional medical guidelines recommend nondrug treatments as the most effective first line of treatment. You can help prevent back pain by practicing back-healthy habits, along with daily stretching and core strengthening exercises. Studies show yoga, tai chi, physical therapy, massage, and appropriate use of cold and heat therapies may ease lower back pain, speed recovery, and improve quality life.

World Spine Day is held on October 16. Lower back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide* and back pain becomes more prevalent as people get older,* according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal and Mayo Clinic. Low back pain is also the most common and debilitating musculoskeletal condition among older adults, reports a Systematic Reviews study.

Treatment for most back pain should start with nondrug treatments,* according to recent studies and guidelines from most professional medical societies, and less than 2% of people with lower back pain have potentially serious spine conditions that will require surgery or medical intervention,* reports the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

Nonetheless, a Harvard University study found that nearly one-third of older adults with new and persistent lower back pain are prescribed opioids—which are potentially harmful, addictive and of low value—without trying evidence-based, guideline-recommended treatments.*

Fortunately, there are a wide range of recommended non-drug options that may be effective in reducing or eliminating symptoms as a first line of treatment. Here are some tips to help you prevent and ease lower back pain:

  1. Practice back-healthy habits. Stay active with low-impact activities such as walking and swimming, practice good posture, make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D, avoid heavy or improper lifting, and maintain a healthy body weight.*
  2. Stretch spine and strengthen core daily. Try daily stretching exercises such as cat, knee-to-chest and spine stretches, and core exercises such as planks and bridges, to prevent low back pain,* advises Harvard Medical School.
  3. Do yoga for flexibility. People who participated in 12 weekly yoga classes designed specifically for people with chronic back pain improved physical function, reduced pain, and were more likely to stop taking pain relievers one year later,* reported an Annals of Internal Medicine study.
  4. Get pain relief with physical therapy and massage. Early treatment from a physical therapist with specialized knowledge in treating musculoskeletal conditions with specific exercises helps provide pain relief with less or no medication.* Adding massage by a trained practitioner, such as a physical therapist, can speed recovery and help you return to normal daily activities.*
  5. Meditate in motion with tai chi. This mind-body exercise, which combines breath control, meditation, and movements to stretch and strengthen muscles, helps to reduce back pain, pain-related disability, and associated depression or anxiety,* reported a Holistic Nursing Practice study. A New England Journal of Medicine study found people who practised tai chi for 12 weeks lowered chronic pain and enjoyed better sleep.*
  6. Apply cold and heat therapies appropriately. Use cold compresses or an ice pack, not heat, immediately after a back injury, which can ease acute pain by numbing the area and preventing or reducing swelling.* Applying heating pads or a hot-water bottle to your back about 48 hours after the injury may help by relaxing aching muscles and increasing blood flow, but only try this for the first week.*

*The following sources provide references for this blog, in order of appearance:

  1. World Federation of Chiropractic. “World Spine Day.” (2022), https://www.worldspineday.org/#
  2. Canadian Medical Association Journal. “Diagnosis and management of low-back pain in primary care.” (2017), online: https://www.cmaj.ca/content/189/45/E1386
  3. Mayo Clinic. “Back pain.” (2020), online: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20369906
  4. Systematic Reviews. “Older adult’s experience of chronic low back pain and its implications on their daily life: Study protocol of a systematic review of qualitative research.” (2018), online: https://systematicreviewsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13643-018-0742-5
  5. New York Times. “Common medications can prolong back pain, study says.” (2022), online: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/11/health/medications-back-pain-overuse.html
  6. College of Family Physicians of Canada. “Low back pain.” (2011), online: https://www.cfpc.ca/CFPC/media/Resources/Pain-Management/Low_Back_Pain_Guidelines_Oct19.pdf
  7. Medical Express. “For low back in older adults, treatment doesn’t match guidelines.” (2020), online: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-01-pain-older-adults-treatment-doesnt.html
  8. Mayo Clinic. “Back pain at work: preventing pain and injury.” (2021), online: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/back-pain/art-20044526
  9. Mayo Clinic. “Back exercises.” (2021), online: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/multimedia/back-pain/sls-20076265
  10. Harvard Medical School. “When to get help for low back pain.” (2019), online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/when-to-get-help-for-low-back-pain
  11. Harvard Medical School. “The best core exercises for older adults.” (2021), online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-best-core-exercises-for-older-adults
  12. National Institutes of Health. “Yoga eases moderate to severe chronic low back pain.” (2017), https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/yoga-eases-moderate-severe-chronic-low-back-pain
  13. Harvard Medical School. “Early therapy helps people with low back pain avoid medication.” (2018), online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/early-therapy-helps-people-with-low-back-pain-avoid-medication#:~:text=The%20reason%2C%20according%20to%20the%20researchers%2C%20is%20that,may%20help%20provide%20pain%20relief%20with%20less%20medication.
  14. Harvard Medical School. “Massage can help back pain sufferers get back on their feet faster.” (2015), online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/massage-can-help-back-pain-sufferers-get-back-on-their-feet-faster#:~:text=Massage%20can%20help%20back%20pain%20sufferers%20get%20back,explains%20the%20March%202015%20Harvard%20Men%27s%20Health%20Watch.
  15. Holistic Nursing Practice. “A narrative review of movement-based mind-body interventions.” (2020), online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31725096/
  16. Harvard Medical School. “Tai chi and chronic pain.” (2015), online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-integrative-health/tai-chi-and-chronic-pain
  17. Harvard Medical School. “Home remedies for low back pain.” (2020), online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/home-remedies-for-low-back-pain