You might think the best thing Dad can do for his back pain is rest. It isn’t.
Many older adults who experience back pain try to stay in bed as much as possible. But while the consensus used to be that the more you stay in bed the better, more recent studies show exactly the opposite. So let’s take a look at back pain and how you can help your loved one deal with it.
Why does back pain occur in seniors?
There are three main reasons older adults in particular experience back pain:
- Spinal Stenosis. The spine isn’t suspended somewhere in your back. It passes through a canal called the – you guessed it – spinal canal. “Spinal stenosis” is the technical-medical term for a narrowing of that canal.
- Spondylolisthesis. That sounds like it came straight out of Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Spondylolisthesis is a condition where one of the spinal vertebrae slips forward onto the next one.
- Degenerative back conditions. The back sees a lot of wear and tear over the years. With time, the disks and joints lose moisture, resilience and the ability to withstand strain.
Some dos and don’ts when you want to help.
There’s a lot caregivers can do (and that they shouldn’t do) when a loved one experiences pain in general and back pain in particular.
- Don’t negate. Telling Mom or Dad that the pain isn’t so bad or worse, that they’re imagining it, is counterproductive any way you look at it. Because if they are imagining or exaggerating, telling them so will only push them into a corner. And if they’re in serious pain, it will make them feel that you’re invalidating them and you can’t be trusted.
- Do show concern. Ask your loved one to tell you about the pain – where it’s located, how bad it is on a scale of 1-5, if it’s anything they’ve experienced before.
- Don’t force them to sit or stand. It’s true that excessive rest isn’t good for back pain. But bed rest for a few hours a day over a couple of days is fine. So if your loved one says they need to rest, don’t stop them.
- Do apply ice. If you’re there when the back pain flares up, apply ice.
- Do encourage gentle movement. After that first 48 hours passes, encourage your loved one to engage in gentle movement. That includes sitting up slowly, gentle stretching, walks around the room or down the hall and any other exercises they have a green light to do.
- Don’t rule out physical therapy. Even if this is a first-time occurrence, make inquiries about physical therapy. PT can go a long way toward not only relieving back pain, but preventing it from flaring up again.
- Do apply heat. I know, before we said to apply ice. But that’s only in the immediate. After a couple of days, try heating pads and warm baths to relax the back and relieve pain.
- Don’t discourage medication. Ask your loved one’s primary physician about pain relief medication. There’s no reason for anyone to suffer for no reason. Just make sure the doctor knows about any regular medication your loved one is taking.
When rest for back pain is important.
We’ve been stressing how too much bed rest can make back pain worse. And that’s true most of the time – but not always. Bed rest is mandatory when:
- The doc says so. When Mom or Dad’s primary physician insists on bed rest, don’t decide on your own that they should get up. You need a second opinion to make that decision. So if you think the primary physician’s recommendations aren’t working, by all means get that second opinion. It just can’t be your own.
- There’s been injury to the spine. If your loved one has suffered a spinal injury and they are waiting for surgery, they have to stay in bed to prevent further injury.
- The pain gets worse. In a situation with no injury involved, your loved one can stay in bed for a couple of days. If you (gently!) convince them to start moving and they insist that the pain is taking a turn for the worse, don’t push them. Call their primary physician and ask what you should do.
There’s no denying that back pain in seniors can be an excruciating experience. With your help, though, your loved one will be able to deal with it – and even move on.