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Front Page » April 8, 2010 » Focus » Oh, my aching back: does it have to hurt so much to get o...
Published 1,636 days ago

Oh, my aching back: does it have to hurt so much to get older?


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

When I was in my early thirties I was promoted to my first position in which I didn't have to do a lot of physical work. Up until that time every job I had ever had had mostly required a lot of digging, pushing, carrying, mopping, etc.

I had also been very active athletically playing a lot of basketball, doing a lot of hiking and riding dirt bikes (which, despite having motors to power them, takes a lot strength when riding them long and hard).

At that same time I began working closely with another manager in the organization that was about 25 years older than I was.

An athletic type, he was in great shape, playing golf all the time and tennis three or four times a week. He also had a construction business on the side where he spent a lot of time hanging dry wall and doing finish carpentry. On the tennis court he would move gracefully and work very hard.

But there was a down side to all of this for him as well. He had played many sports in his life, suffered many injuries and had seemingly just worn out parts of his body. He had had a few surgeries, but I remember every time he got up from his desk he used to hold his back and gimp down the hall to a meeting with what was seemingly very fragile knees.

He teetered as he walked because his wheels just weren't there like they used to be. The pain was obvious, and although he never complained much, the wincing was there.

At the time I wondered how one could age, be active and yet not have these maladies. It seemed to me by watching his example that playing sports and getting too much exercise was just as bad as getting too little. I was determined not to have that happen to me, because as active as he was, it seemed a pained existence.

Now all these years later, I am where he was age wise at that time. And I find myself facing many of the same problems that I saw him have.

I have two knees which are somewhat gimpy - neither of which causes me constant pain, but both of which need work, maybe even replacement at some future date, my doctor points out.

I have a wrist that is in bad shape, having been injured during falls over the years off motorcycles, bicycles, dog sleds and from just general clumsiness.

I have one ankle that has already had an operation and is tight, another that will probably need an operation some day as it seems to get more painful all the time. Add to that a back that isn't always up to what it should be either.

Then, I compare my old friend, and myself to my dad who up until he passed away in 2006, seemed to be the picture of health for most of his 92 years.

He was a dairy farmer who worked as hard physically as anyone almost ever could every day of his life. He did that until he left that work and went into construction/maintenance work until he was well into his seventies. I hardly remember a word of complaint from him about pain, in joints or elsewhere.

A very small man, he seemed almost invulnerable; that is except for when I was a kid and a cow kicked him in the barn on one morning during milking, knocking him down and breaking his arm. He got up, went to the doctor, they casted it and that afternoon he was milking cows again.

The next day he bought a special hoe - one that I still have in my garden shed - that he used one handedly to thin sugar beets.

Years later I got him to admit that his arm still did hurt once in awhile, but that admission came grudgingly.

"It's just part of life as you get older," he told me.

So what is the difference? Why do some of us seem to have a thousand aches and pains as we age while others seem to be almost pain free?

Is it a matter of mind set or a matter of not complaining about it?

And what about activity? If you pursue athletic activities at older ages, the chances of injury can add to pain problems. Is it worth it?

Well one of the solutions to address aging pain seems to be activity. Many research projects on pain in seniors show that more active seniors have less pain, despite the fact they have a higher chance for injury than those that aren't active.

Joint pain is one of the most common problems amongst those over 50. Muscle activity and exercise can help with this. As muscles decline (as they do when people get older) it takes work to keep them toned. Simply, the more muscle loss there is the more joints will hurt.

A study released in 2005 from Stanford University compared a group of around 500 runners (many who were in their mid-sixties when the study began) to a control group of around 400 people who didn't exercise much, showed that the active group had 25 percent less muscle and joint pain than those that didn't run (BioMed Central (2005, Sept.19). Exercise Helps Reduce Pain In Old Age. ScienceDaily).

Pain in older people is almost always associated with arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation also points out in study after study that pain can be relieved by activity. But more importantly, there are things that can be done to protect joints during activity, to prevent problems from coming on whether it be today or in 20 years. The Arthritis Foundations suggests that individuals do the following:

* Don't spend a lot of time in one position. Move around. When driving in a car, for example, people often spend time in one position, hardly moving. Get out frequently and walk around.

The same is true for everything from working to watching television.

* Body weight has a lot to do with joint deterioration. Keep your body weight as close to normal as possible. Overweight people put a lot of stress on all their joints. Recent studys have shown that increased fat also damages joints in other ways other than stress because it secretes materials that damage joints. Follow nutrition standards for your age group or seek out help to plan your diet.

* Posture is important. As a kid most of our parents spent a lot of time telling us not to slouch. It was good advice. Remember what your mother said:

* Exercise, as has already been pointed out, is important. But also remember that pain is not necessarily gain either. It can be a signal that you have overdone it.

* When we are young we think we can accomplish anything and often take on projects that are too heavy or cumbersome to do ourselves.

Because of our resilience we often get through those things. However being older, you should be wiser too. If a job is too big to handle alone, get someone else or more people to help. Some jobs are just too big for one person. And when doing work, use the big joints to do it. The small ones can get strained or injured too easily.

* Whether physically working, exercising or recreating, make sure to wear the proper protective gear. Protect weak joints with braces and protect your head with a helmet if the activity could have head injury capability. Wear pads where appropriate too.

* Too many people are complacent all week and then go out on weekends or vacations and try to do everything at once. Prepare your body slowly for activities by building up endurance and muscle.

Also begin any new activities slowly to see how joints and muscles will react to them. Then pace yourself; be sure that you don't overdo it. Damage to joints can come from long periods of heavy activity. Take it slow and easy.

While no one can do anything about the damage you did to your body as a kid, in your 20s or even before 50, that water under the bridge can now be used to your advantage, at least in terms of experience.

The aches and pains that have resulted from those antics should remind you to protect your body from such incidents in the future.

Pain, unfortunately, is part of life. And pain in older age is common to many people. I don't know what ever happened to the friend I worked with so many years ago; he would be in his early 80s now.

But if he is able, I am sure he is still active, and probably healthy as he can be too, because of the fact he continued to exercise.

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