Back pain is a common complaint among most adults at least a time or two in their lives. Most of us will experience a few fleeting back pain episodes throughout a lifetime. But what about the people who battle chronic back pain — that is — pain that is consistent and lasts for three months or longer?
As it turns out, research is indicating that the experience of chronic pain is on the rise in America, with lower back pain and joint pain among the most prevalent complaints. With all of the incredible medical advancements in our world today, why are our nation’s spines crying out for relief in record numbers?
[ READ: Exercises for Lower Back Pain. ]
Why You Have Chronic Back Pain
Here are five significant factors that I believe are playing a critical role:
— Body weight.
The overall population of the United States is getting older. In 1960, for example, there were approximately 17 million Americans ages 65 or older and less than one million over the age of 85. As of 2020, those numbers skyrocketed to 47 million people ages 65 or older and 7 million people over age 85.
Those advanced-age numbers are projected to increase even further over the next 20 years. Like many of our joints and organ systems, the overall health of the spine declines over time. Age-related conditions like degenerative disc disease, spinal arthritis, kyphosis and others most frequently impact people over the age of 65.
While the American population is getting older, it’s also getting heavier. The prevalence of obesity in the United States hovered around 30.5% between 1999-2000. When comparing this number to the most recently available data set from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2017-2018, the rate of obesity amongst Americans increased 9.2% and currently hovers at around 42.4% of the population.
The pandemic may also potentially play a significant role in further escalating those rates because of lockdowns and the inability for us to access gyms and other activities. Our spines were intricately designed to perform under ideal circumstances when it comes to our body weight. Back pain is a chief complaint among people who are severely overweight. The reason is simple — forcing the spine to bear several pounds more burden than it already carries is a recipe for pain and disability.
We sit more today than we ever have before. Whether it’s binge-watching shows on a TV streaming service from our couch or bed, or being otherwise constantly glued to scrolling on our smartphones, Americans don’t move around as much as we used to.
Our spines were designed with movement in mind, and they benefit from regular physical activity and work optimally when our bodies are in motion. A sedentary lifestyle leads to significant back pain because the spine becomes continually compressed when we are constantly in a seated position. Compression of the spine’s vertebrae and discs robs them of receiving adequate blood flow and oxygenation to work well. The result of this cascade is often back pain.
Research indicates that the number of sedentary jobs in the United States has increased a whopping 80% or more since 1950. Whether you’re seated at home in front of a TV or at a desk in front of a computer, sitting down for most of the day is a spine destroyer. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s important to remember that the spine of humans was designed for a species that used to move around a lot!
[ READ: Tips for Managing Back Pain. ]
Each of the factors mentioned above is also attributable to an increase in some spine-related diseases. From arthritis and spinal fracture to degenerative conditions and spinal stenosis, the spine’s health is directly impacted by age, body weight, lifestyle and occupation.
For example, osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis, which are common causes of lower back pain, are spine conditions typically experienced in adults over 60. Additionally, degenerative disc disease and spondylolisthesis are two spine conditions that can disproportionately impact people who have overweight or obesity. And when it comes to lifestyle and occupational concerns, those who sit for most of the day are more prone to debilitating herniated discs and pinched spinal nerves than those who are more physically active.
Improving Chronic Back Pain
Though back pain concerns continue to rise in the American population, there is some good news. Many of these contributors are modifiable, which means you can do something about them.
Staying physically active and maintaining an average body weight for your height are two of the most significant things you can do that can have a lasting and protective impact on your spine — so that you can head into your golden years without pain and disability holding you back!
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