Older, wiser . . . and achier? All too often, pain becomes part of life as we age. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 80 percent of adults are affected by lower back pain at some point in their lives. Fortunately, if you're wondering how to relieve back pain, or how to prevent it in the first place, there are some healthy habits that can help.
Get and Stay Active
Back pain may send you to bed, but don't stay there long! Staying active is one of the most important steps you can take to relieve back pain, according to experts at Cleveland Clinic. Exercise keeps your muscles strong and flexible, helping them support your back. The Institute for Chronic Pain notes that exercise also triggers a healing process in your nervous system, which is the part of your body that sends pain signals to your brain.
If you already have a regular exercise routine, stick with it. If you haven't been regularly active (ever or in a long time), talk with your doctor before getting started. He or she can recommend appropriate activities and suggest specific exercises to build the core muscles that support your back.
In general, you'll want to aim for at least 30 minutes of low-impact exercise most days of the week. No particular type of activity is better than others for improving back pain. Walking is the simplest, most convenient choice for many people, and it brings the added benefit of creating new social opportunities. Make regular walking dates with friends, or join a local walking group. Many city parks and recreation departments offer free, regular meet-ups for walkers.
Other popular, low-impact exercise options include bicycling, swimming, elliptical machines, and instructor-led exercise classes. Yoga and tai chi are excellent choices for improving your strength, flexibility and tranquility.
Stand (and Sit) Up Straight
Good posture is an essential part of protecting your back. Follow these tips to help protect your back during common activities:
- Standing: Keep your back straight and avoid slouching. Use a low footstool or yoga block to rest one foot at a time when you must stand for long periods.
- Sitting: Avoid hunching over. Use a chair with good lower-back (lumbar) support.
- Working at a computer: Position your keyboard so you can comfortably hold your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Sit close enough to the computer so that you don't have to lean over. Keep your neck straight and your chin tucked in. Get up, stretch, and walk around at least once an hour.
- Driving: Sit high and close to the steering wheel while leaving about 10 inches between you and the center of the airbag cover to help prevent injury should the airbag deploy. Consider using a lumbar support cushion.
- Sleeping: Find a position that lets you keep your knees bent. Try to lie on your side, or, if you sleep on your back, put a pillow under your knees.
- Lifting: Avoid heavy lifting. If you must lift a heavy item, find someone to help you, and lift using only your leg muscles for power. Keep your knees bent and hold the item close to your body.
Mind Your Mind
The way you think about your pain—and how often—plays a big part in how it affects you. As Cleveland Clinic notes, the more attention you give your pain, and the worse you expect it to be, the worse it actually feels. This proves that your brain is a powerful tool. By learning to focus less on negative thoughts, you may be able to control your pain.
Recent research reported on by the National Institutes of Health looked at mindfulness meditation in older adults with back pain. Participants were taught to focus their attention on a neutral activity or object, and to accept their thoughts without judgment. Nearly half of the study's participants reported significantly reduced back pain after six months of near-daily practice.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, meditation has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Ask your health provider to suggest meditation classes or instructors.
Take In the Good Stuff
When you're trying to figure out how to relieve back pain, your diet may not be the first thing to come to mind, but it can be a big factor. Your bones naturally weaken as you age, increasing the risk of osteoporosis—a bone disease that can lead to fractures in your spine. You can reduce your risk with calcium and vitamin D. According to the Institute of Medicine, from ages 51 to 70, women need 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily, and men need 1,000 milligrams. Both men and women need 600 to 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D each day.
Good dietary sources of calcium include dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, and foods that say "calcium-fortified" on the package. Vitamin D can be found in whole milk, sunlight, and foods fortified with Vitamin D. Supplements are available for both nutrients. Always talk with your doctor before taking a new supplement.
Extra body weight puts more stress on your back. If you're overweight, losing those extra pounds can be enough to relieve back pain. Ask your doctor to help you create a healthy weight-loss plan.
Finally, back pain prevention is another compelling reason to stop smoking. According to the National Institutes of Health, smoking may damage the discs in your spine and increases your risk of developing osteoporosis. Talk to your doctor or Rite Aid pharmacist about which smoking cessation options are available to you.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Low back pain
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Low back pain fact sheet
Mayo Clinic, Back pain
Spine-Health, Office Chair, Posture, and Driving Ergonomics
Cleveland Clinic, Psychological factors of chronic back pain
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Meditation
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 4 Tips: Mind and Body Practices for Common Aging-Related Conditions
National Institutes of Health, Meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy ease low back pain
Institutes for Chronic Pain, Understanding chronic pain
Institute of Medicine, Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D