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Guide to back pain in the elderly

Dealing with back pain can be challenging. Explore common causes of back pain in the elderly and ways to manage and prevent it.

May 22, 2024

Elderly woman with back pain at home

Experiencing back pain at any age can be very difficult to deal with, but for many older adults, back pain can often be experienced alongside other health conditions and medical issues, which can make it even more of a challenge to manage.

In this article, we look at common causes of back pain in elderly people and ways to help manage and prevent back pain from recurring.

Common causes of back pain in elderly people

There are potentially many different things that can cause back pain in elderly people. These include:

Back pain caused by muscle strains

A pulled muscle in the back area, which is also sometimes called a strained muscle. These can often happen after a fall or sudden twist, but can also sometimes happen when simply stretching to reach something, bending to pick something up or taking part in sport or exercise. These types of pulled muscles usually result in lower back pain.

Back pain caused by sciatica

Sciatica is a condition caused by a trapped nerve in the lower back and can result in pain that travels from the back down some or all of the leg, along with other symptoms such as muscle weakness in the affected leg, numbness or pins-and-needles.

Back pain caused by osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis of the spine happens through wear and tear, which is why it can be more common in older people. It happens when the cartilage between the joints in the spine weakens and breaks down, which leads to stiffness, pain and inflammation in the back. It’s the most common form of arthritis in older adults.

Back pain caused by spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a condition when the spinal canal narrows over time, and it’s often caused by osteoarthritis. It often results in back pain when walking and can sometimes also cause leg pain, weakness and unsteadiness.

Other, less common, causes of back pain in older adults can include slipped discs (also known as herniated discs or prolapsed discs) and fractures which are usually caused by falls or other accidents.

Elderly with spinal stenois back pain

When to see a doctor about back pain

Most back pain is temporary and will improve after a few weeks. However, that depends on what is causing the pain.

Older people experiencing back pain should seek emergency medical advice if they have back pain alongside one or more of these sudden symptoms:

  • Have lost control of their bladder or bowels
  • Have numbness around their bottom area
  • Have pain in both legs and find it difficult to walk
  • Have had a recent significant fall or accident involving the back area.

Older adults should visit their GP if their back pain is interfering with normal life and activities and they show any of these symptoms:

  • If the pain is no better after several weeks treating at home
  • If the pain is constant, day and night, and getting worse over time
  • Have lost a lot of weight recently for no obvious reason
  • Have previously been diagnosed with osteoarthritis
  • Have pain in the upper back without having experienced a known injury to that area
  • Have had cancer or tuberculosis (TB) in the past

It’s always best if an older adult experiences sudden and debilitating back pain, to seek professional medical advice.

Common consequences of back pain in the elderly

Back pain in the elderly can have a big negative impact on quality of life, especially if the pain doesn’t improve over time. This can include:

Back pain affecting the quality of sleep

Some back pain can interrupt sleep, negatively affecting almost every area of life, including both physical and mental wellbeing. Take a look at our tips for how to sleep with sciatica.

Changes to balance

Some back pain can also affect the older person’s balance and motor control of their legs, which can increase the risk of a fall.

Withdrawing from normal activities

Back pain can cause older adults to stop their normal activities, social interactions and recreation, which can result in feelings of loneliness and isolation, on top of the physical pain.

Reduced mobility and self-care

Experiencing back pain can result in some older people not being able to move around their home as easily as they usually do, which can not only make an accident or fall more likely, but can also mean that they start to neglect some routine ways of caring for themselves, such as bathing, going to the bathroom, preparing meals and getting enough drinks to stay hydrated.

If an older loved one in your life is experiencing back pain that is having a significant negative impact on their quality of life, it could be worth considering arranging for additional family help, or some elderly home care assistance, even if only for the short term until the back pain can be treated or managed more effectively.

Elderly man feeling happy after treatment of his back pain

What helps back pain in old age?

The right way to help an older adult with back pain will depend on what is causing the pain. If the back pain has been assessed by medical professionals, then they will provide treatment advice, but for back pain that is thought to be caused by muscle strain, some things that can help include:

  • Keep moving - Muscle damage can take longer to recover from and be more painful if you stop moving around.
  • Cold, then heat – Applying an ice pack immediately after the back pain starts can help reduce inflammation, minimise the pain and reduce recovery time. After this, many people find that applying a heating pad or taking a warm bath can be helpful as this aids muscle relaxation and increases blood flow.
  • Take pain relief medication – If you are on any other medication, speak to your doctor before taking anything new. Otherwise, taking paracetamol or ibuprofen can help to manage back pain.
  • Gentle stretches – It’s important to introduce some gentle stretches, especially after sleep or periods of rest, to help prevent further strain and aid recovery.

If the pain gets worse or persists for longer than a few weeks, it’s important to seek professional medical advice.

Tips for preventing back pain in elderly people

Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes. If you want to prevent back pain from developing in the first place, or you have recovered from back pain before and want to stop it from reoccurring, there are several things you can do, including:

Stay active

Being active in later life is one thing that can help prevent back pain. Gentle exercise for older adults can help to strengthen muscles around the back area and make them less likely to be strained by normal daily activities.

Eat a healthy balanced diet

Along with staying active, a balanced diet can also help older people to maintain a healthy weight, which will help to minimise strain on the back and other areas of the body. Eating a healthy diet can sometimes become more difficult in later life, with age-related changes to appetite being common. An option that works well for many older adults is to eat small amounts more frequently. Our article on healthy snacks for elderly people might give you some useful ideas.

Get plenty of calcium and vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D can help protect bone density in older people, which can be beneficial in minimising the risk of spine issues developing in later life.

Other lifestyle changes

Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake can also help with a healthier lifestyle that will lower the risk of back problems developing in the future.

Peace of mind for all

Panic alarm worn by elderly man

If you are an older adult living independently, or you have an older loved one, it can be a real concern that if there is a fall, accident or another kind of emergency when no one else is around, reaching help might not be possible. This could be even more of a concern if existing back pain or other conditions affect mobility.

One potential solution that could help bring real peace of mind to all could be a personal alarm system, with features suited to the lifestyle of the individual.  The alarm is designed to be worn at all times, so it’s always there when needed, and a single press of the alert button will call for assistance.

You can speak to our team to find out which personal alarm system would be best suited to your circumstances. Our friendly team are available on 0800 085 7371 (Mon – Fri, 9am – 6pm) or you can browse all of our alarms online.

Independent living products brochure

Learn how personal alarms and home monitoring solutions can keep you or your loved ones safe and independent at home.

Download brochure

Ways to support independent living

Independent living products brochure

Learn how personal alarms and home monitoring solutions can keep you or your loved ones safe and independent at home.

Download brochure

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