Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Here’s What Veterans Should Do About a Bad Back 

Get moving, change your posture — and don’t put off decisions

spinner image a man with his hand on his lower back cause he is in pain
Getty Images

Veterans have back problems at much higher rates than the general population. One recent study found that 80 percent of veterans had experienced daily back pain for more than a year.

Ken Hansraj, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon in New York, told AARP Veteran Report that a former Marine patient had “pointed out the decades of bending, lifting, twisting and reaching — training for years with hundred-pound backpacks” that accounted for his pain.

spinner image people hold up a welcome home sign as someone from the military stands before an american flag. the words aarp veteran report appear above the flag

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

The Marine had told him, “A true warrior doesn't dare complain about these unflattering issues, because we signed on to do a job few can.”

Sometimes avoiding treatment comes from a fear of major surgery, hesitancy around alternative medicine options or a lack of education on the impact of doing nothing. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how to tackle back issues.

Change your posture

When your mom would get on your case about not slouching, she had a point. In his book Watch Your Back, Hansraj explains that posture is key to easing back pain.

“Researchers have found a link between poor posture and depression, and many experts believe stooping and slouching could be associated with weight gain, heartburn, migraines, anxiety and respiratory conditions,” he said.

Proper posture is defined as ears aligned with the shoulders and shoulder blades retracted. In proper alignment, spinal stress is diminished. 

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

If you are sitting, place both feet parallel to the floor by uncrossing your legs or ankles. Pull your shoulders back, and make sure your chin is not down by your neck but up parallel with the floor. Sit up with a straight spine. 

You can also set an alarm to remind yourself to periodically get up and walk around. This will prevent you from slouching into a not-so-ideal posture for extended periods of time while sitting.

In addition, exercise, using an ergonomic work chair,and sitting up straight while driving can help retrain your body into maintaining proper posture.

Get moving

It might seem counterintuitive when you are in pain, but movement and exercise are often the antidote to chronic back pain. Rahul Shah, M.D., , an orthopedic spine and neck surgeon, told AARP Veteran Report that modifying your movements can mean exercise without pain. 

“Activity modification includes limiting the bending, twisting and stooping behavior one partakes in,” he said. “In general, this a best practice for all of those with initial back pain in order to avoid aggravating the back.”

Aerobic exercise increases the flow of blood and nutrients to your back’s soft tissues, improving healing and reducing stiffness, according to a study.

Think about surgery

Back surgery has advanced significantly in the past few decades and no longer necessarily involves a recovery period of several months. These days endoscopic surgeries, done with tiny incisions, result in minimal blood loss and scarring compared to traditional surgeries such as the laminectomy, which is used to alleviate pain for spinal stenosis. 

See more Health & Wellness offers >

Kaixuan Liu, M.D., , founder of Atlantic Spine Center, told AARP Veteran Report that the best candidates for surgery are those with persistent neurological symptoms and spinal stenosis who might have trouble walking a few blocks without sitting or experience lower-back pain spreading to the legs when they stand or walk, and those who feel better sitting. 

“Success is equivalent to traditional open surgery, which is more invasive. The recovery from endoscopic surgery is a matter of a few days to a few weeks.”

Don’t put off decisions

Shah said that in some situations a veteran should not wait: “If the back pain is recurring, or if it’s associated with pain that runs into the buttocks or legs, then seeing a health care provider is advisable. If the back pain is associated with fevers, chills, weight loss or difficulty with bowel or bladder functions, then the physician visit should be expedited.” 

Bottom line

“I can’t — I have a bad back” is not an excuse you should keep making. After serving your country, you owe it to yourself and your family to ensure you are able to enjoy a life without back pain.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?