Lower Back Pain: 7 Causes in Older Adults

The natural aging process can cause all kinds of problems throughout the body, especially in the joints. So, as one of the most complex joint systems in the human anatomy, it’s only natural that the spine would be a hotspot for age-related issues. Over time, the bones, cartilage, and muscles in the back weaken and erode, which can lead to severe pain, stiffness, immobility, and discomfort. Understanding the cause of your back pain is a good first step in formulating a treatment plan that suits your needs.

1. Osteoarthritis – As the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) is naturally one of the most common back pain causes among older adults. In fact, it affects over 32.5 million adults in the United States, most over the age of 50. OA occurs when the cartilage in the joints breaks down, affecting the bones. People with OA in the spine tend to experience severe pain, tenderness, swelling, and stiffness in the lower back.

2. Muscle Sprain or Strain – We tend to associate pulled back muscles with activities we did more of when we were young like playing sports and moving heavy boxes. But muscle strains and sprains are quite common among even sedentary older adults who haven’t played sports or moved in years. As we lose flexibility and strength throughout the body, we lose our ability to properly support the musculoskeletal system, which can lead to painful muscle injuries.

3. Spinal Disk Degeneration – Unfortunately, as we get older, our joints lose their ability to self-lubricate and cushion as well as they once could. Spinal disks, which serve as cushions to the spine, lose their ability to absorb shock and weight when in motion. This, in turn, causes them to erode and prevents them from properly supporting the spinal system, which can cause pinched nerves, muscle spasms, and inflammation, all of which lead to pain and stiffness.

4. Spinal Stenosis – Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the canal through which your spinal cord passes. This canal narrows with old age as the spinal disks begin to degenerate and the ligaments and joints thicken. If you’re experiencing lower back pain, you may have lumbar stenosis, which is when this narrowing occurs in the lower part of the spine. This is the most common kind of spinal stenosis.

5. Spondylolisthesis – Spondylolisthesis is a condition that occurs when one of your spine’s vertebrae slips forward and out of place, usually onto the bone below it. The vertebrae can press on nerves, triggering severe pain. The most telling symptoms of this condition include lower back pain and stiffness, numbness, muscle spasms, tightened hamstrings, pain in the legs, and difficulty walking.

6. Osteoporosis – Osteoporosis is a common part of aging that occurs when the bones lose density and become weak and brittle, causing fractures and hindering mobility. This is especially common among postmenopausal women. Though osteoporosis, in and of itself, doesn’t cause pain in the back, it can trigger other problems that can be quite painful for senior citizens. In the lower back, osteoporosis can lead to a spinal compression fracture, occurring when the bones in the spine weaken or crumple. These fractures can cause a condition called hyperkyphosis, or excessive curvature of the spine.

7. Spinal Infection – Like any other part of the body, the spine is susceptible to infection that can cause spinal instability and severe pain. Infections may be caused by bacteria, fungus, or tuberculosis, with bacterial infections being the most common form. For example, staph infections caused by the staphylococcus bacteria can spread to the spine and cause infection. Luckily, they are relatively uncommon and can be treated with strong antibiotics. Compared to the general population, spinal infections are much more likely to occur in older adults, especially those with diabetes and those who are immunocompromised. 

Chronic lower back pain doesn’t have to be unrelenting, no matter how old you are. In fact, as you age, technologies and treatment options become better and more widely available, which means relief may be closer than you thought! Determining the cause of your pain and developing a tailored treatment plan can help ensure that you enjoy your golden years to the fullest.

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