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Back pain in older women could be a fatal red flag

A new study suggests that chronic or frequent back pain may be responsible for increased mortality risk

Photo (c) BakiBG - Getty Images
Experiencing back pain can oftentimes leave consumers out of commission for a few days and lead to several trips to the chiropractor. And while many see back pain as a nuisance to daily activities, the risks could be severe -- particularly for older women.

Researchers at Boston Medical Center recently conducted a study which found that women 65 years and older who reported persistent back pain could be at a greater risk of mortality. Women are not only treated for back pain more frequently than men, but the pain can oftentimes become crippling.

“Our findings raise the question of whether better management of back pain across the lifespan could prevent disability, improve quality of life, and ultimately extend life,” said Eric Rosen, lead author of the study and research fellow at Boston Medical Center.

Life-changing pain

Rosen and his team followed over 8,000 women, all over the age of 65, for 14 years. The participants’ daily back pain was measured throughout the study, as was their ability -- or inability -- to complete regular day-to-day tasks.

Many of the women struggled with preparing meals, walking short distances, or getting up and down from chairs, while others had difficulty walking above a certain speed, due to persistent back pain. The researchers found that all of these issues ultimately resulted in increased mortality risks.

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to measure disability after measurement of back pain,” Rosen said. “This allowed for a prospective analysis of back pain that persisted over time and later rates of disability, which may help explain the association between back pain and mortality.”

Overall, the researchers found that nearly 66 percent of older women with persistent or frequent back pain died during the study’s follow-up period, compared to 53 percent of women without back pain. The researchers say that back pain increases the risk for death among older women by 24 percent.

Despite the relationship the researchers found in this study, Rosen and his team are still unsure as to why back pain is leading to greater risk of death, though he does suggest some general health concerns for the older demographic experiencing chronic back pain.

“Back pain may directly impair daily activities, but older adults could inappropriately avoid them due to fear of re-injury or worsening of symptoms,” Rosen said. “Being unable to perform, or avoid, daily activities could lead to weight gain, development, or progression of other chronic health conditions, and ultimately earlier death.”

Dangers of back pain

While this study shows that older women experiencing back pain are at a greater risk of mortality, a previous study shows why back pain -- for anyone -- could be dangerous.

Early last year, University of Sydney researchers found that people with recurring back issues are dying younger due to several different reasons. The study’s lead author, Paulo Ferreira, explained that those with spinal pain have a 13 percent higher chance of dying every year than those without it. He also noted that this finding was “significant,” as many people “think that back pain is not life-threatening.”

Similar to Rosen and his team, Ferreira and his fellow researchers weren’t sure why back pain was associated with higher death tolls, but they suggested that it may lead to “a pattern of poor health and poor functional ability, which increases mortality risk in the older population.”

Ferreira emphasized that back pain shouldn’t be taken lightly, and those suffering should seek medical treatment, in addition to maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle.

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