Common pain complaints in older adults and how to avoid them

Jul 27, 2020
Sore knees is a common problem among older adults. Source: Getty.

Having spent the last few years working exclusively with over-50s, I’ve been given a unique insight into the way our current lifestyles affect our bodies over the long term. Too much sitting, not enough structured exercise and a technology-driven environment, that’s constantly looking for ways to help us move less whilst achieving more, all contribute to a declining state of physical function as we age.

Considering that only 17.2 per cent of Australian adults over the age of 65 meet the current physical activity guidelines, it’s no surprise that when we do start to exercise, there are a few issues that arise.

Below, I have highlighted three of the most common pain complaints I witness and some potential causes and solutions. These are very general observations, anyone presenting with pain should go and see a clinician for an individual assessment.

Shoulders

The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body. It’s also a joint that we use in some way in nearly every activity. For the shoulder to function properly, it requires a lot of support from other parts of the body. Core stability, posture and shoulder blade function are all contributors to effective shoulder function.

When we sit down for long periods staring at a computer screen or iPhone, we tend to roll our shoulders in and hunch over, flexing through the thoracic spine (upper back). In this position, it’s very difficult to lift our arms overhead. There just isn’t enough room in the joint to allow for smooth, effective movement. Now imagine you are seated in this position for five to eight hours a day, five days a week, 300 days a year.

If I could provide just one tip to help avoid shoulder injury in the future that will also help potentially avoid many other issues, it would be to do everything you can to avoid becoming excessively kyphotic (overly rounded upper back).

There are many exercises and movements that you can easily find to improve thoracic mobility and these are all worth doing. However, the best place to start might be your own environment. Lift your computer screen to eye level, spend more time standing rather than sitting, and try to remind yourself to pull your shoulders back and sit up straight when you do find yourself sitting for long periods.

Lower back

Chronic lower back pain is extremely common in older adults. So much so that it’s listed as one of our most damaging chronic diseases. Interestingly, in only a small percentage of cases, the exact cause of the pain is known. I have worked with many older adults that suffer from back pain and have also been privileged enough to see their symptoms alleviate, and in some cases completely subside.

In my experience, one of the key areas of weakness or dysfunction that can lead to back pain is the ‘core’. When I refer to the core, I include some of the muscles around the hips, abdomen, spine, and shoulder blades. These are all the areas that help provide stability for the body and help us control our movement effectively, reducing the risk of injury.

A lack of stability or mobility in any or all of these areas can result in compensations being made up down the line. For example, lack of strength and ability to create intra-abdominal pressure during heavy lifting can place excessive pressure on the lumbar spine (lower back), cue back pain. So, learning to create stability through these areas will help take the pressure off the back and may help us stay pain-free well into the future.

Knees

“I’ve got dodgy knees” is a fairly common complaint of new members at my facility. Upon asking them to perform their best bodyweight squat, I can usually put this down to one of two reasons. Poor mechanics and movement control, or lack of hip stability.

If we try and remain completely upright when we squat and our weight shifts forward first over our knees, then we are essentially asking them to do the majority of the work without recruiting the powerhouse that is our hips. This places a lot of pressure on the knees and eventually might cause them to respond painfully.

Additionally, if our knees start to buckle in towards one another as we move up and down in our squat, then the issue may be higher up the chain and the knees may just be the messenger. Some of the muscles up around the bottom are responsible for providing stability to the upper leg. If they are weak and inactive, usually from too much sitting, then our knees are unable to maintain a smooth plane of movement as they flex and extend. The result, dodgy knees.

To keep your knees happy and healthy as you age, you need to strengthen the muscles that support them and stabilise the joints above and below them. Quite often, with many musculoskeletal pain complaints, simply learning to move correctly and teaching the right muscles to work when called upon will make significant improvements to your health.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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