Treating Back Pain in Seniors with Physical Therapy

By Bill Case | In Back Pain, Senior Exercise | on October 12, 2013

Most doctors who work with patients in treating back pain also actively work with physical therapists like me. Physical therapists are skilled in helping patients recover from back pain and get back to performing everyday physical activities.

Physical therapists often spend time teaching their patients exercises which help them improve and maintain the health of their spines. There are a variety of popular exercise programs which have been designed to reduce the amount of back pain patients experience.

By using physical therapy, you will learn postures and positions which will help lessen the amount of pain you feel in your back. There is no one approach that will work for everyone. Your physical therapist will design a exercise program which is tailored to your individual needs. There are many different types of exercises available, and you will want to use the exercises which are the most comfortable to you.

Some exercises focus on adding strength to the muscles which assist in arching the spine and back. Patients who have back pain which is a result of ligament tears or other problems with their discs can have the pressure reduced by arching their backs.

Patients may perform other techniques such as lying prone, in which they lay on their stomachs with their arms to their sides for about ten to fifteen minutes. A variation of this technique may be lying prone on pillows in order to support your back. Your physical therapist may also want you to perform press ups, standing extensions, or other techniques.

To perform a standing extension, place your hands on the smaller part of your back while standing. Lean backward and hold this position for twenty seconds before repeating the exercise. To perform a prone press up, you want to lay down on your stomach and place the palms of your hands near your shoulders. Now slowly push your shoulders up, keeping your hips down. Lower yourself down slowly, and repeat.

While physical therapists can teach you a variety of methods to reduce your back pain, it is up to you to apply them. The most important factor in using a physical therapist is making sure you do the exercises they teach you. Consistenly sticking to an exercise program in order to improve the health of the spine and back is difficult for many people, but the rewards are worth it. Taking the advice of your physical therapist is critical in you reducing your back pain.

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-Physical Therapist 32 yrs. with 19 years in private practice -University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston,TX. - Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy- 1982 -Post graduate Sports Physical Therapy Specialist --1987 -Inventor: Diagonal Rotary Patterning Machine, Patent 1988 -Lecture: on orthopedic injuries-nationally and internationally -Co-author: for SPORTS PHYSICAL THERAPY -Writer: for The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Self, Men's Health, Fitness and Prevention magazines

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24 Comments to "Treating Back Pain in Seniors with Physical Therapy"

  • bonyi says:

    October 29, 2013 at 8:32 am -

    Great write up for the elderly. I hope they find this blog and put to work all that you mentioned here.

  • brendamf says:

    October 31, 2013 at 12:32 am -

    I was wondering, is it alright to work through the pain? I have heard, that for most people working through pain helps them in the long run. If, it is alright to do this, when should you stop? Should you do 5-10 more reps in pain or should you work until, you can’t take the pain?

    1. Bill Case says:

      October 31, 2013 at 1:15 am -

      The term “working through the pain” usually regards muscle soreness. This soreness is sometimes present for a couple of days after a run or gym routine for the first time. Generally, exercising with some muscle soreness is safe to work through. Pain while exercising is a sign that you are hurting something. If it goes away after an adjustment of resistance or repititions then OK, but if not then your body is telling you to stop.

      1. brendamf says:

        October 31, 2013 at 2:08 am -

        That is what I thought. I was told by a fitness trainer that it was best to work through pain. But, they deal with different types of people. Thank-you for your help. I was wondering because, my mother-in-law, will sometimes force herself to do things when she is in pain. I wanted, to know, if this was good for her to do, or bad. I wish, she would take it easy when she was in pain. But, I do understand, why she keeps working.

  • dieselfit says:

    November 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm -

    Great tips for the back. These are great exercises to do. What about an elderly person wanting to go further in strengthening their backs and bodies? Can they use their body weight or weights, or would machines be much preferable for them?

    1. Bill Case says:

      November 9, 2013 at 11:37 pm -

      Depending on assessment and level of fitness, then cardio, light resistance and high repetitions and flexibility is a good start. Assessing posture is huge for proper center of gravity for balance. Light hand weight is good for upper body tone. A reformer or supine leg press with no weight for lower extremity is beneficial for strength. Progressing to machines only with supervision for technique to be added after a couple of weeks. Walking will help strengthen trunk and core muscles, starting at 10 min. It is much easier to increase the resistance or work following positive results. Otherwise, pain or an increased soreness may require longer rest days. It is easier to add, then to take away exercises. A positive experience will maintain compliance and a positive exercise attitude.

      1. dieselfit says:

        November 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm -

        That is a great way to start fitness. I agree that the individual should start light and assessment should be performed to see how much further they can go at their level. Thank you for your quick response.

        A positive attitude will surely be a great result for those who have a great experience!

  • JoanMcWench says:

    November 15, 2013 at 5:17 pm -

    Back pain seems like a common occurrence in the senior community. Other than treating it upon arrival I wanted to find out if you had any suggestions concerning the time prior to its appearance? Are there steps someone can take before it gets to the point that they need physical therapy? Can osteoporosis be a culprit?

  • Bill Case says:

    November 15, 2013 at 8:03 pm -

    Posture is huge with back pain in the older population. Changes which occur as we age can be minimized with regular exercise, as well as, postural awareness with activities. A slouched posture, for whatever reason will usually result in back pain. Seeking exercises to work on strength, balance, flexibility and posture is the best way to prevent back pain. Walking, 4-5 days/wk., for 15 minutes will also help strengthen the postural and trunk muscles to help avoid unnecessary back pain. Osteoporosis, Arthritis, muscle weakness etc……can all be the culprit. We are treating the symptoms many times and not the cause.

    1. JoanMcWench says:

      November 19, 2013 at 2:02 am -

      I think walking would be one of the easiest suggestions to impart. It can be difficult to encourage keeping the regimen of 4-5 days a week but I feel the reward comes with persistence. It becomes easier when they start to feel better day to day. I also agree with symptoms coming before acknowledging cause. I find myself rectifying issues with my posture daily when I notice I am slouching.

  • charlee felice says:

    November 24, 2013 at 6:45 pm -

    I am currently undergoing Physical Therapy, and you are so correct. I have to follow up with my exercises at home. When I dont, I feel the the difference.

    Since I have been attending, there has been an improvement. It is not overnight, but a work in progress.

  • Fit4living says:

    December 28, 2013 at 9:58 pm -

    This information is so important for seniors (and for those of us who are not quite seniors, yet). My mom has been greatly helped by physical therapy. At one point, she did not feel as though she was experiencing much progress. When she mentioned that to her physical therapist, he asked if she had been doing the exercises he’d told her about. She hadn’t been, so she went home and started doing them daily. The improvement she felt after that was remarkable!

  • Cosmic Debris says:

    January 13, 2014 at 8:45 pm -

    While physical therapy i often the first treatment offered by primary care physicians, there are times when it is simply ineffective, inappropriate, too expensive for the expected results, or even harmful. When should an elderly patient refuse physical therapy?

    What types of injuries grow worse when physical therapy is the only treatment?

    1. Bill Case says:

      January 14, 2014 at 12:10 am -

      You answered it. Refuse physical therapy if the treatment is–ineffective, inappropriate, too expensive or harmful. Orthopedically speaking, if an arthritic joint is painful, weak, and negatively affecting quality of life issues and is not responding to physical therapy, then seek out a specialist. An Orthopedic specialists may have more appropriate options, then a primary care physician.

  • theshaynee says:

    January 15, 2014 at 3:20 am -

    My grandmother has had several procedures on her back due to chronic pain. It seems that bad backs run in my family. She has done physical therapy plenty of times in the past along with going to the chiropractor. What’s the difference between going to the chiropractor and the physical therapist exactly? I know the chiropractor can be considered alternative medicine so maybe that’s it.

  • elidbugg says:

    January 16, 2014 at 8:49 pm -

    After an episode of low back pain has lasted between two and six weeks, or if there are frequent recurrences of low back pain, it is reasonable to consider back pain exercises and physical therapy for back treatment. (Some spine specialists consider back exercise and physical therapy sooner, particularly if the pain is severe.) In general, the goals of back pain exercises and physical therapy are to decrease back pain, increase function, and provide education on a maintenance program to prevent further recurrences.

  • elidbugg says:

    January 16, 2014 at 8:50 pm -

    In addition to passive therapies, active physical therapy (exercise) is also necessary to rehabilitate the spine. Generally, a patient’s back exercise program should encompass a combination of the following:

    Stretching for back pain exercise
    Strengthening for back pain exercise
    Low-impact aerobic conditioning

  • elidbugg says:

    January 16, 2014 at 8:51 pm -

    Even patients with a very busy schedule should be able to maintain a moderate back pain exercise regimen that encompasses stretching, strengthening, and aerobic conditioning. These exercises suffice as physical therapy for back pain relief.

  • elidbugg says:

    January 16, 2014 at 8:54 pm -

    Most routine back pain will improve on its own with conservative therapy in three months, often shorter than that

  • elidbugg says:

    January 16, 2014 at 8:55 pm -

    Even more importantly, when we do more aggressive things–such as injections, imaging, and surgery–the long-term outcomes don’t change at all. These things have very little impact on what is going on, and they have the potential to make things worse.

  • elidbugg says:

    January 16, 2014 at 9:05 pm -

    Physical therapy is the science of blending physiology with exercises and applying these principles to the body when an injury is sustained. Physical therapy for back and neck conditions focuses on the structures that support the spine and its joints including muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

  • Diane says:

    July 25, 2015 at 6:45 pm -

    Along with proper nutrition, hydration, and staying limber via stretching, I’d also add that it’s very important to make sure that people of every age have a good supportive mattress. It doesn’t matter if you prefer your mattress firm or soft, as long as it’s a good quality mattress that is giving you the support that you need. Pillows can also make a big difference. I keep trying to talk my Mom into replacing her old mattress, but she seems to think it’s not worth it, since she’s almost 80. I think she figures she won’t be around much longer (which of course is distressing to think about), but I’ve told her it doesn’t matter if she’s around for one day or 30 more years, what matters is her comfort and health.

  • GemmaRowlands says:

    July 29, 2015 at 12:27 pm -

    Physical therapy is very important when it comes to day to day pain management, and it is something that a lot of people could benefit from. The professional therapists know exactly what to do in order to help your pain, so it is well worth a visit. Also, and this is a surprise “side effect” of physical therapy that my great aunt pointed out to me, sometimes it is nice to get out of the house and be able to talk to some new people! She loved all of her health professionals, and actually looked forward to the thought of going to see them, as she knew that she would then have a friendly face to chat to.

  • Nemesysbr says:

    October 23, 2015 at 5:26 pm -

    I’m kind of getting older thanks to my back. The way I position in front of the computer has done some pretty serious damage, so much that I can’t even stand straight for a few minutes without feeling pain. It’s really weird how in a family with quite a few seniors, I’m the one with the most back problems,

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