Date: February 1st, 2003
Pain is an unpleasant subject. Whether it's a knee that acts up when the weather changes or that nagging twinge in your lower back, pain is something we all experience occasionally. Pain is nature's way of telling you something is wrong, so it's not something to be ignored - as if we could.
Experts generally define pain in two ways:
- Everyday pain can be caused by a variety of things, including muscle strains and sprains, tendonitis, bursitis, tooth and gum disease, sore feet, or cold and flu symptoms.
- Persistent pain occurs either continuously or on and off for a month or more. It is usually the result of long-term disease or conditions; two of the most common causes of persistent pain are arthritis and diabetes.
As we age, pain can become more than an occasional inconvenience. It can hamper daily activities, reducing mobility, and generally making life miserable. But there are some simple lifestyle choices that can help reduce your pain.
Move it or lose it
Staying active may well be the secret to staving off many of the most common and painful conditions associated with aging, such as arthritis and low back pain.
"I've seen any number of older people who think it's normal to just sit the whole day," says Dr. Dorothy Baker, associate director of Yale University's Program on Aging. "The hazards of immobility are huge at any age, but particularly in older people." From brain function, heart and kidney function to bone density, "Basically every organ system in the body is losing capacity," she says.
Many aches and pains commonly associated with growing older are simply the byproducts of sedentary lifestyles. Our joints are designed to move, but after years of inactivity, they become less efficient, and movement becomes increasingly painful.
The cartilage in our joints acts as a shock absorber, cushioning the load the body exerts on them. As pressure compresses the cartilage, fluids (mostly water) are squeezed out of the joint. When the pressure eases, nutrient-rich fluids flow back in to the cartilage. This fluid exchange is essential to maintaining healthy, pliable cartilage and pain-free joints. That's why exercises that incorporate joint motion, like walking, can help fend off painful diseases like osteoarthritis.
Recent physiological studies have proven that exercise can help build muscle mass through strength training, even for individuals in their 90s. "Exercise should be a part of the standard prescription for any older patient," Baker believes. "We know exercise prevents a whole cascade of things - arthritis, low-back pain, cholesterol, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, and falls."
For many, the term 'exercise' brings to mind images of young, lycra-clad athletes, sweating away in aerobics classes. But exercise can include far less strenuous activities and still be beneficial, especially for seniors.
At her fall-prevention workshops for seniors, for example, Dr. Baker suggests that seniors stand at the kitchen sink with their arms grasping the counter, and rise up on their toes while slowly counting to five. "You would be amazed at how many older people can't do that," she says. Simple stretching and bending exercises also help build and maintain muscle tone.
Moving stiff or arthritic joints may be painful at first. But without regular exercise, joints may permanently freeze up. Regularly flexing stiff joints lubricates and protects them.
When to Seek Medical Help
Although healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise, a well balanced diet, getting enough sleep and having good posture can limit how often or how severely you feel pain, it is important to recognize and admit when your pain is not manageable and seek treatment. Although older adults are more likely to experience pain, they are also less likely to report it to their doctors.
Over-the-counter medications (OTCs) are available without a prescription and can be effective for mild to moderate pain. The most common OTC pain relievers include acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium. It is important, however, to check with your healthcare provider to make sure an OTC medication is not going to interact with any prescription drugs you may be taking or affect any health conditions you may have.
Although OTC's are your first line of treatment defense against pain, it is important to assess your condition. Pain that is severe or lasts for more than a few days may require treatment with prescription medication.
The Alliance recommends you call your health care provider if:
- You believe the pain might be a sign of a heart attack, stroke, or similar medical emergency.
- The pain is severe.
- The pain lasts for more than four days, even after you've rested and tried over-the-counter pain relievers or other self-treatments.
- You have an infection. (Symptoms of an infection include redness, swelling, and warmth in the painful area.)
Also remember to talk to your health care provider about any pain relief techniques you're using or plan to use, such as cold pack and heating pads. Educating yourself and keeping up-to-date with your treatment regimes has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, and helps build self-reliance and control over your pain.