Back Pain and Discomfort.
A staggering 85% of us will experience some form of back or neck pain as we age beyond fifty. It may sound like a fait accompli. At least that’s how a close friend of ours felt when she found herself stuck in a half-pike position in the garden, unable to move. The problem was this hadn’t been the first time she struggled with her back. She had been having some lower back pain for a few weeks but had chosen to ignore it, because she was just "growing older". The only problem was while she had been correct in assuming it was related to her aging body, sometimes back pain can be a sign of something more sinister. With a strong core and supporting muscles, you can avoid this type of scare altogether.
Table of Contents
If you experience any of the following in addition to back or neck pain, make an appointment with your doctor to rule out additional health issues before simply assuming it is a pesky backache:
• Numbness or tingling
• Unexplained weight loss
• Shooting pains down the legs
• Increased pain at night
• Bowel or bladder incontinence
• Severe pain that doesn’t dissipate even after rest
Now that we have covered the crucial things, let’s dig into how back issues materialize in the first place.
How Back Issues Materialize
Many of us begin to notice the uncomfortable twinges of back pain in our forties, fifties, and sixties. However, these irritating pains can even begin to affect us in our thirties. Oh, to be thirty again! Several factors contribute to back pain. As we age, our spines start showing signs of wear and tear that lead to the pain and discomfort we feel. Let’s explore these issues a bit more.
The spine comprises of thirty-three vertebrae, collectively called the vertebral column protecting the delicate spinal cord. In between each vertebra is a gel-type cushion that allows our backs to bend or flex. In addition, these cushions, also called discs, are there to absorb shock when running or walking and provide support to the entire body’s skeleton! So, it’s no wonder that these discs start to show signs of wear and tear as we grow older! A herniated disc is when the gel cushion ruptures, the jelly center begins to leak and irritates nearby nerves causing pain. As we get older, the risk of a herniated disc increases as these discs dry out and become less spongy and flexible. This rigidity can cause the disc to rupture and subsequently cause pain.
Osteoarthritis is most common in the elderly. Often called the wear-and-tear arthritis, it is a primary cause of back and neck pain. This is because when we are young, our vertebrae are lined with a flexible tissue called cartilage which gradually disappears as we age. This coupled with narrowing and loss of fluid in the discs, causes pressure on our joints, leading to inflammation and back pain. Abnormal wear and tear on the bones and cartilage in the neck can cause Cervical spondylosis (arthritis of the neck). Usually, pain is felt predominantly in the neck rather than the back. Sounds terrible! You could say Cervical spondylosis is a proverbial pain in the neck, but we gather this is somewhat more severe!
Spinal Stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal column that puts pressure on the spinal cord or surrounding nerves. This, in turn, causes pain, numbness, and even cramping. Aging is the primary cause of Spinal Stenosis, but it can also be caused by the following: Arthritis, Tumors, Spinal injury, Herniated disc, Bone disease.
No one likes to hear that their weight might be the cause of their back pain, but the truth is, it is a significant contributor to the pain we feel. This is because every excess pound of weight on your body puts more pressure on your musculoskeletal system. In fact, for every pound of excess weight, it places approximately 4 pounds of pressure on your system when walking and 8 pounds when running! Whew, that’s a lot of excess pressure! Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight is crucial to keeping your back pain-free.
Preventing Back Pain with a Powerful Core
A strong core is one of the most effective back pain treatments. It is also an excellent defense to prevent developing back pain in the first place. Strong core muscles not only enable the body to move with ease they are also crucial for a robust, healthy back and spinal stability. In addition, a strong core can carry the weight of your entire body, one of its primary functions, and continue to support this weight should the load increase. Load increases could be everyday lifting, exercising, and even weight gain. Still, the result is the same; you rely on your core muscles for every movement. Therefore, the stronger your core, the easier these movements will be.
Hips, Muscles, and Balance
The core comprises of the abdominal, pelvic, back, hip, and buttock muscles. Each has its role to play to ensure a strong core, and all must work in perfect unison to provide the stability and strength required from the core working as a unit. If one set of muscles is weak, it can lead to a weakened core, often resulting in the pain, injury, and general stiffness associated with aging.
Many injuries are associated with a weakness in the hips. You may be wondering how your hips contribute to your overall core strength; here’s how. The hip muscles support the pelvis and core, forming a solid foundation for arm and leg movements. The primary hip muscles associated with hip strength are the gluteus medius and deep hip rotator muscles. It’s these little beauties that require strengthening to ensure we avoid knee pain, back pain, and other aches or pains in our legs. In addition to their supporting role, strong hip muscles also provide adequate leg stability when walking, running, or tasks that require shifting our weight onto one leg. Strong hip muscles ensure the knee stays in line with the hip and foot while keeping the spine and pelvis level. When the hip muscles are weak and not supported by a strong core, it can lead to misalignment, which over time increases stress on joints and muscles, resulting in ligament injuries, meniscus tears, and osteoarthritis.
There are three main muscles associated with a healthy, strong back. Let’s take a closer look at all three.
1. Transverse Abdominis Muscle
Located under the obliques (six-pack), the transverse abdominis muscle forms the front and sides of the abdomen. Its role is to stabilize the pelvis and lower back before you start to move. It also helps maintain good posture by pulling the abdomen inwards to the spine. A weak transverse abdomens muscle will not be able to perform its duty and in turn can lead to lower back pain. Exercises such as the Hollow Man Hold, Bicycle Crunch and Planking are excellent for engaging the deep-seated transverse abdominis. Inside chapter seven of the book Core Strength (from the Life After 50 Series), it takes a look at 11 exercises that utilize your body weight only - no equipment necessary! Every workout exercise is accompanied with detailed instructions. These are ideal exercises because they don’t require purchasing equipment.
2. Multifidus Muscles
One of the smallest muscles in the body, the multifidi, plays an essential role in spinal support. They can be found running alongside the spine and holding the vertebrae together. Their role in the core muscle club is to provide stabilization and ensure the vertebral joints function correctly. They also reduce the pressure felt on the vertebrae and distribute weight evenly across the spine. Lower back pain is often the direct result of weak or dysfunctional multifidi. Core training programs such as pilates or flat back bridging are great for beginners looking to activate the super supportive multifidus muscle.
3. Erector Spinae Muscles
Found on either side of the spine, these large muscles are responsible for extending your spine when standing or sitting, side-to-side movement, keeping your back nice and straight. They also link to the obliques and abdominal muscles, further enhancing stabilization and ease of movement in the upper body. Weak erector spinae muscles can increase back pain; however, when strong and functioning in correlation with a robust core, these muscles support your torso and trunk, decreasing and preventing back pain. Lifting weights (such as deadlift and bent over row) are extremely effective for strengthening the erector spinae muscles.
A strong core ultimately equates to better balance and, therefore, the prevention of chronic back pain. In addition, aside from keeping us upright, a stronger core will ensure better balance and reduce the risk of falls as we age.
How it Links to Core Strength
Balance is quite a complicated process and requires three systems to ensure we remain upright and steady on our pins. First up is the vestibular system (liquid in the inner ear) that acts as a spirit level to keep you perfectly balanced. Secondly, our eyes and brain work closely together, providing information about our surroundings in relation to our bodies. And thirdly, the proprioceptive system, which are the nerves throughout the body (core), provides information about our posture and the space around us.
All three systems must be working in unison for your body to remain balanced; when you have a weak core, you may feel off-balance or fall.
Inner & Outer Core Muscles
Inner core muscles are attached to the spine and stabilize the body. The outer core muscles work in unison with the inner core muscles to allow the body to move in various ways. Therefore core stability relates to the inner core muscles while core strength relates to the outer core muscles. When both sets of core muscles are strong, it enhances balance and movement. Core stability exercises are excellent for reducing back pain and restoring muscle function. Check out these amazing benefits of increasing core stability:
• Less strain on the lower back
• Enhanced muscle strength and agility
• Improved balance / coordination
• Improved stability of pelvis and spine
• Better posture
Injuries and Lower Back Conditions
While back pain can occur due to an accident or lifting excessive weight, it can also occur when performing everyday tasks, such as working around the house, or exercising. In addition, it can also be directly linked to overuse or repetitive motions, aka wear and tear or aging!
Weak Core Muscles
A weak core (lower back muscles & abdominal muscles) puts the lower back at risk of injury. In addition, poor posture (slouching) results from a weak core, which puts more strain on the lower back muscles and spine as they adjust to compensate to balance the additional load.
Repeated forceful motions that put stress on muscles can cause chronic strain, for example, throwing a ball. This pain can worsen over time or suddenly increase if the sore muscle is put under additional stress.
Incorrect lifting techniques
Strain caused when lifting a heavyweight can cause the spine to twist and result in lower back pain if not done correctly. When lifting, always keep the weight close to your chest and avoid twisting your upper body.
Certain sports can cause excessive pressure on joints and muscles. In addition, falls and car accidents can also be the cause of sudden impact injuries. Weak core muscles are more susceptible to this type of injury. However, a strong core can prevent falls and reduce the recovery time needed to heal.
A new activity/exercise can also cause muscle strain as muscles are exposed to sudden or unfamiliar stress. In addition to age-related issues and injury, back pain can also be directly linked to exercising inflexible and weak muscles.