The University Record, December 13, 1999

Elders with back pain get back to life with new program

By Kara Gavin
Health System Public Relations

The Health System has launched a first-of-its-kind program for people age 60 and older with chronic back problems. Called the Geriatric Spine Program, it offers one-stop shopping for treatment by a variety of specialists.
Getting older can be a pretty spine-tingling experience—and not always in a good way. As if wrinkles, balding and menopause weren’t enough, most people find that their backs hurt more often as they age, sometimes enough to interfere with their daily life.

But unlike younger people’s back problems, which often have a fixable cause, the back pain of older Americans isn’t as easy to relieve. Whether it’s osteoporosis, arthritis, shrinking padding between backbones or just the normal changes that come with aging, the elderly face some of the most difficult causes of chronic back pain.

That’s why the Health System has launched a first-of-its-kind program for people age 60 and older with chronic back problems. Called the Geriatric Spine Program, it offers one-stop shopping for treatment by a variety of specialists.

“Back pain in the elderly usually causes a decrease in function, much more so than in the younger population, so that they’re not able to do the basic things like get around, be independent in the community, and do the things they used to do,” says Anne Christopher, director of the program.

“What’s more, it can be more difficult to get elderly people back on their feet after a back pain episode because their pain tends to be more chronic.”

Christopher and her colleagues hope their new program will be a model for others. That way, they hope to help the nearly 6 million Americans age 65 and older who, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases estimates, suffer frequent lower back pain. And with the country’s average age inching ever higher, and 12 percent of Michigan’s population expected to be age 65 or older by next year, more of us than ever will soon be saying “Oh, my aching back!”

The eight-week U-M course starts with a half-day individual assessment, followed by solo and group meetings with a team of experts in physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychology, nursing, case management and exercise physiology. The team pays special attention to what kind of home activities the patients can’t do because of their back pain, and tries to find ways to restore some of that function safely.

“The geriatric population has very specific needs because the patients aren’t going back to a workplace, and because they often have so many other health issues affecting their function,” Christopher says. “They really need a program designed to suit their individual needs, and that’s what we do.”

Often, the first step toward recovering some of the lost ability is getting into better shape, Christopher says. “We work with our patients to increase their flexibility and strength, as well as cardiovascular conditioning and endurance,” she explains. “We also address issues of biomechanics, to help them understand the best and easiest possible way to do things, so that they’re not injuring their backs more.”

Individual therapists work on each patient’s gait, posture and balance—three areas often worsened by general weakness due to lack of exercise. And, they constantly work within the constraints of each patient’s other health conditions. Besides building a model for others to copy, Christopher and her colleagues hope to generate much-needed research results on what works—and what doesn’t—to improve strength and function and relieve back pain among the elderly.

“Our goals are really to see how we can keep this population independent and not at risk for falling and having further functional decline,” she says.


The elderly and back pain

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases:

  • About one-half of adults have low back pain in any given year.

  • Approximately 15 percent of U.S. adults report frequent back pain or pain lasting more than two weeks annually.

  • More than 26 million Americans ages 20–64, and almost 6 million ages 65 and older, have frequent low back pain.

    According to the Michigan Aging Services System:

  • The older population—persons 65 years of age or older—numbered about 1.1 million in Michigan in 1990. They represented 11.9 percent of the state population, about one in every eight Michiganians.

  • People ages 65 and older are projected to represent 12 percent of the population in the year 2000, but will be 16.6 percent by 2020. If these projections hold, more than one in six Michiganians will be more than age 65 in 2020.