If you suffer from back pain, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that about 80 percent of people will experience back pain at some point in their life, and aging increases your chances dramatically. As you get older, there are a number of spinal conditions that can occur as a product of wear and tear on your body.
One of the most common causes of back pain is caused by degeneration of your discs. Spinal discs are rings of tough collagen fiber with a gel-like center. They’re found in between your vertebral (spinal) bones, and act as shock absorbers as your body bends and twists. As you age, the discs become worn down and dry out, causing your vertebral bones to rub against one another. Discs may also protrude sideways or rupture, resulting in impinged nerves and inflammation. In all cases, disc problems have the potential to be extremely painful.
Spinal stenosis is another back condition associated with aging. Stenosis is a narrowing of the bony canals that house your spinal cord and spinal nerves. As the narrowing progresses, the spinal cord or accessory nerves can become compressed. Depending on where the compression occurs, it can cause pain, numbness, and loss of function, in some cases limiting your ability to walk more than short distances.
Another spinal condition related to aging is arthritis in the facet joints. These are the flexible joints in your spine that allow it to bend and twist. When the facet joints and associated ligaments become weakened, it can allow a vertebra to slip forward and out of alignment. This condition is called degenerative spondylolisthesis, and can cause pain that is worse when you’re standing up straight or bending backwards.
Older adults who have lost bone density, a condition called osteoporosis, are at an increased risk for compression fractures. This kind of fracture occurs when a vertebral bone partially collapses, triggering sudden and severe back pain, a loss in height, physical deformity, and a loss of function.
While these age-related changes in your spine may seem like a foregone conclusion as you get older, that’s not necessarily the case. In Chinese medicine, the aging process is related to the health and function of your Kidney organ system. The Chinese believe that your Kidneys are the source of your Essence, which is something akin to body constitution. The strength and health of your Essence determines how you grow, your overall health, fertility, and how you will age. Your Kidney controls the condition of your bones, your ears and hearing, the health of your brain, and even the hair on your head. Healthy Kidneys and abundant Essence translate into healthful aging.
The good news is that while aging is inevitable, there are some things that you can do to stay healthy as you grow older. A good place to start, especially when it comes to back pain treatment, is with acupuncture. Scientists have documented that acupuncture affects chemicals in your brain to reduce pain and improve your mood. Acupuncture also decreases inflammation locally, boosts circulation, and supports the healing process.
If you work with an acupuncturist for age-related back pain, they may add electric stimulation to their acupuncture treatments, prescribe a Chinese herbal formula, or recommend dietary changes. Their goal would be to strengthen your Kidney system, nourish your Essence, relieve any pain you may be having, and support the healing process. In addition to acupuncture and Chinese medicine, there are some things that you can do to prevent back problems as you age. They include:
- Strengthen the core muscles of your back and abdomen with target exercises. A physical therapist or athletic trainer can help in suggesting the right exercises for your specific needs.
- Relieve some of the strain on your back by practicing good posture. In general, your ears, shoulders, hips, and feet should line up when you’re standing.
- Avoid unnecessary strain on your back, such as lifting heavy objects (no more than 25% of your body weight). When you lift, do so correctly, by bending your knees and hips into a squat, and lift by straightening your legs.
- What you eat can actually affect the health of your back. A good place to start is with an anti-inflammatory, Chinese food therapy diet, which includes lots of plant-based foods and limits processed foods and meat. Choose meals that include more fish, whole grains, nuts, and heart healthy fats, such as olive oil.
- If you’re depressed or under a lot of stress, make it a point to get some help. Strong negative emotions cause muscle tension and further aggravate any pain you may have.
- Stay active. If there were such a thing as the fountain of youth, physical activity would be it. Whether it’s walking, swimming, tennis, Tai Chi, or chair Yoga, movement improves your circulation, keeps your muscles strong, maintains your range of motion, and lifts your mood.
The bottom line is that as you age, your back will show some signs of wear and tear. However, it is possible to stay active and pain-free through good self-care and help in the form of acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.