Dr. Kaliq Chang with Atlantic Spine Center Offers Tips to Soothe and Strengthen.
As we age, our spine does too, of course – meaning lower back pain becomes more of a looming possibility. But fortunately, many exercises for seniors with lower back pain can help soothe an achy back and strengthen surrounding muscles to keep pain at bay, says Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
About 8 in 10 Americans experience lower back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health. But people who are 60 and older face even higher odds of dealing with low back pain simply because their age equates to a higher risk of degenerating joints in the spine, explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. Osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis, two common causes of lower back pain, also occur more frequently in older adults, he says.
“Pain and stiffness in the lower back that’s worse in both the morning and evening is quite prevalent in my older patients,” Dr. Chang says. “They may complain that their pain even wakes them up at night, or intensifies with too much motion during the day. It can hamper their ability to bend comfortably and do all their favorite activities.”
In this article, we cover the most common back pain causes, some benefits of exercises and other ways to relieve pain. Dr. Chang also shares some of the best exercises for back pain, which are designed specifically for senior people.
Back pain causes
Back pain can occur because of different reasons, and sometimes it is not quite obvious what causes the pain. Strains sometimes result in back pain, for example, after lifting heavy things. Sciatica, ankylosing spondylitis, as well as a slipped disc can also cause pain. There are some other reasons for back pain, but those are the most common ones. If you experience back pain for some time, it’s best to consult a doctor to determine the diagnosis and choose the proper treatment.
As pain can be caused by different conditions, it is important to understand the cause correctly, and you might need different treatments based on your diagnosis. In some cases, a special training program can help ease the pain, but sometimes the only option is to have surgery or take pain-relieving medications.
Benefits of lower back pain exercises
Exercise in general offers many benefits, like increasing endorphin levels, which improves your mood, as well as strengthens your cardiovascular system. Apart from benefits to your general health, exercise improves blood circulation, which promotes healthy functioning of different body parts, including spinal discs. Exercise and physical activities also help cut the chance of neck pain and increase the mobility of joints. Good exercises for low back pain strengthen muscles, so they can support your spine better. However, it is important to remember that correct technique is key to enjoying all the benefits of exercise. So, it is best to consult a trainer to learn the correct moves.
Moreover, you shouldn’t just focus on strengthening muscles, but also incorporate stretches for the lower back into your fitness routine. Stretching helps relax muscles and prevent strains and sprains. You can try yoga or Pilates, as well as some other stretching routines. Try to perform such exercises with caution and control so that you don’t hurt yourself, especially if you’re just starting an exercise routine.
Since most cases of back pain are due to “mechanical” causes (meaning the ache can’t be blamed on infection, fracture, or other serious medical problems) exercise can play a huge role in helping resolve it, Dr. Chang says. “For most seniors, easing your aching back is achievable with home-based measures, and exercise is a prominent part of those,” he says. “On top of that, exercise is one of the best ways to prevent back pain from starting, especially as we age, since it helps keep our spinal joints supple and the surrounding muscles strong.”
How to alleviate lower back pain for seniors?
As there are two types of pain, chronic and temporary, there are different ways to ease the pain. For temporary pain, you can use cold or heat, for example, put a bottle of hot water on your lower back. Applying special warming or cooling ointments can also help. You can find effective over-the-counter gels and prescribed treatments. Depending on the type of pain, lying down can help, but sometimes moving, gentle massage, and stretching are the best options.
For chronic pain, it’s best to consult a doctor, as they can recommend special exercises and choose the best pain-relieving drugs.
In any case, adding exercises for low back pain to your fitness plan can benefit you. Exercises can either help you ease pain, or strengthen your muscles and joints and prevent pain in the future.
Since “motion is lotion” for the spine, as the saying goes, Dr. Chang typically recommends older adults be more physically active overall, including walking briskly for 20 to 30 minutes daily. But various exercises can specifically help seniors who already cope with lower back pain.
Dr. Chang highlights these back-friendly techniques and how to do them:
Pelvic tilt: Lying on your back on the floor, with legs straight in front of you, tilt your pelvis in toward your chest while keeping the middle of your back on the floor. Hold for 3 seconds and release. Repeat 10 times.
Side bends: Sitting in a hard chair with your feet flat on the floor, keep one hand behind your head and reach the other hand toward the floor. As you lean over, tighten the muscles running along your ribs, waist, and hips. Return to your original position and then do the same technique on the opposite side. Repeat 5 times.
The bridge: Lying flat on your back on the floor, bend your knees and place your feet flat against the floor. Tighten your “core” muscles in your abdomen, raising your hips until your pelvis forms a straight line between your knees and chest. Don’t arch your back. Hold for three breaths, then lower your pelvis to the floor. Repeat 5 times.
The Superman: Lying face down on the floor with your arms stretched out in front of you – like Superman – raise your head, right arm and left leg about two inches at the same time. Lower and same technique on the opposite side. Repeat 5 times.
Knee pulls: Standing while steadying yourself on a nearby table, slowly bend one knee and pull it up to hip level, holding for several seconds. Then lower and do with the other leg. Repeat 5 times.
Exercises to avoid with back pain
Probably the most important tip is not to skip a warm-up. Exercises are indeed beneficial, but if your muscles are stiff and not ready to train, the chance of injury increases. Without a warm-up, you can easily have a strain, so try to include at least a 5-minute warm-up into your training routine.
Another thing to avoid is training through pain. Surely, some exercises can ease the pain, but if they don’t help or make the pain worse, you should immediately stop the exercise and switch to another one, or rest.
It is advised to avoid exercises like standing toe touches, as they often result in back injuries. It is especially important for senior people. Try to incorporate hamstring stretches with a towel or elastic band instead. These are examples of good stretches for lower back exercises that can help you gently stretch your muscles.
Also, try to skip double leg raises as it increases pressure on the lower back. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do raises at all, but do it one leg at a time. In this case, you can enjoy the benefits of the exercise without side effects.
The same thing goes for sit-ups, they also increase pressure on the lower back, so you can switch them for partial crunches.
Another piece of advice is to mind the technique. It is essential, as even beneficial exercises for low back pain can lead to an injury if performed incorrectly.
Back pain can be very disturbing, so preserving your health is key. Exercises for low back pain can help you prevent pain, or ease existing symptoms.
Related article - Spinal Stenosis, an age related narrowing of the spine.