If an aching back is starting to feel more like a regular thing — and less like something you randomly pulled at the gym — well, you’re not alone. About 6 million older adults in the U.S. live with chronic lower back pain. In a 2019 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, almost 46 percent of adults 65 and older said they experienced back pain in the past three months.
“As we get older, we start to lose fluid in our discs,” explains Gbolahan Okubadejo, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon with the Institute for Comprehensive Spine Care. As we lose fluid, the discs tend to collapse, “we get stiffer, and the risk of injury becomes greater,” he says. From there, plenty of lifestyle habits raise your risk. Some of these — hoisting your grandkid or overdoing the gardening — are obvious, but some aren’t.
Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.
Here are 10 surprising culprits that may play a role in the pain in your back.
1. You aren’t drinking enough milk
It’s not the milk per se, but the vitamin D it comes with; some studies have found that those with the most severe back pain had the lowest levels of vitamin D.
The vitamin’s effect on bone health could help explain the connection. Research in the journal Menopause found that among postmenopausal women considering spine surgery, those with severe vitamin D deficiency had more severe disc degeneration and back pain. Stronger bones can help protect against back pain and other disabling issues. Consult your physician about your vitamin D levels, says A.N. Shamie, M.D., professor and chief of spine surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
2. Your core is weak
The muscles in your midsection make up the “core,” says physical therapist Karena Wu of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in New York City. A weak core can mean chronic back pain.
To help build strength, sit or stand straight, imagining that there’s a string attached to the top of your head, pulling you upward. Now tighten your abdominal muscles, trying not to move your pelvis, ribs or shoulders. Hold that position for as long as you’re comfortable.
3. You have a new grandchild
They’re delightful — and heavier than they look. If it’s been a while since you lowered an infant into a crib or picked a toddler in mid-tantrum off the floor, you might be feeling it in your lower back.
When lifting a baby, widen your base of support by spreading your feet a little apart and bringing your center closer to the ground. Be sure to hold small children close to you when you move them from the floor to crib or from the ground to a car seat, says physical therapist Matthew Minard, owner of Human Movement Optimization in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Imagine there’s a circle around your feet and stay within that zone,” he says.