Spinal problems are very common in the elderly. The wear and tear that accumulates in one's spine can often lead to problems down the road, especially when they go untreated for long periods of time. Back pain, headaches, neck pain, and limb pain are very common as a result. In fact, back pain is the most frequent reason for activity limitation in those over 55. This limitation in activity causes depression, loss of muscle mass, fatigue, and overall poor health. The problem is that they seldom have anywhere to turn for these problems. They are often told by their doctor that their age is the cause of all their concerns and they are given meds they can't pronounce and a few empty words about the caveats of old age. I for one do not ascribe to the whole "It's your age" or "It's just arthritis" catch-all excuses for every single ache, pain, and problem plaguing our seniors. Elderly people should be tending gardens, attending their grandchildrens' recitals, and playing the Wii!
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In most cases, prescription pain medications are the first thing offered to these patients by their doctors. However, the majority of elderly patients are already taking several medications for various other conditions, increasing the risk of harmful drug interactions. In addition, the medications are only covering up the symptoms rather than actually relieving the cause of the problem. This sets the patient up for failure because the drugs may make them "feel good," even though they are not, which will increase the chances of making the problem worse by abusing already damaged joints and soft tissue.
The absolute worse case scenario involves spinal surgery. Nowhere in the history of medical care will you find a more dubious practice. There is absolutely NO statistical evidence showing any long term benefits of spinal surgery for backpain, except in extreme cases like fracture, disc herniation, and dislocation. In fact, most studies show that the patients that have lumbar fusion surgery are actually worse off in the long run: Read "Why You Should Never Get Fusion Surgery" from Forbes magazine.
The interesting thing is that despite this lack of evidence, American doctors perform 5 times more lumbar fusion surgeries than doctors in the UK, which is the most comparable country to us in regards to lifestyle and genetic factors. Why? Because there are so many more surgeons that perform this surgery in the US. And companies that make the equipment to perform the surgeries pay MILLIONS in fees back to the doctors that perform the surgery. It doesn't take long to figure out why so many surgeries take place. Just follow the money. To quote well-respected pain management expert Dr. Seth Waldman, MD, who is critical of back fusion surgery, "If you have a screwdriver, everything starts looks like a screw." We apparently have a health care system stacked to the gills with screwdriver-toting surgeons that cut first and ask questions later. Luckily, many primary care MDs try to steer their patients away from surgery, and try to encourage alternatives, which is a refreshing step in the right direction.
So what is an active, virulent elderly person to do if they have back pain (or would like to avoid it)? if you are wary about the risks of drugs and surgery, you may want to consider checking into chiropractic care. Chiropractic care has been around for over 115 years and has become the 2nd largest primary health care profession in the US. Chiropractors offer a safe, effective treatment for back pain, neck pain, and headaches, even for the elderly. Unfortunately, some critics of chiropractic spin yarns of fracture, stroke, and other risks which often scare off patients. However, when asked where the research is to back up these risks, these critics often shrug and have nothing to offer, because there is no research indicating that chiropractic is unsafe. In fact, there is plenty of research proving that it is safer and more effective than drugs and surgery. In a recent study done by Consumer Reports, chiropractic care was rated #1 in regards to patient satisfaction for treatment of back pain.
Of course, all the research and testimonials in the world mean nothing if you cannot fathom the thought of someone "snapping and cracking" your joints. Fortunately, doctors of chiropractic have a number of different techniques to choose from. Some utilize the more traditional manipulation while some, including my Muskegon practice, use gentle non-manipulative techniques. Using the Atlas Orthogonal and Activator methods of chiropractic treatment, we utilize precision instruments to adjust the spine, re-aligning the spinal joints, and taking pressure off the nerves and soft tissue without the pain associated with more aggressive manipulation. This makes our treatment safe even for those with osteoporosis, advanced arthritis, and other bone abnormalities. Once the spine becomes more stable, we also encourage stability exercises to help keep the joints flexible and strong to help prevent flare ups. Plus, the extra range of motion gained by chiropractic does fantastic things to your golf swing! (There's a reason why the PGA has a chiropractor on hand at each event).
So, what do you have to lose? The drugs aren't fixing the problem and they're probably causing some side effects you would rather avoid. Surgery is costly, risky, and generally not effective. There is another option. When I talk to patients or teach at seminars in the community about ditching what hasn't worked and trying something new, I remind them of one of my favorite quotes of all time from the late great Albert Einstein when he tried to define insanity:
Although I am not saying that you or your doctor are insane, I can tell you that the only way you are ever going to get to a different place in regards to your health is if you take a different path. A consultation with a doctor of chiropractic may be the first step on a journey towards better health and renewed vitality.