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Avoiding Back Pain As We Age

Oh, your aching back!

But it doesn't have to be that way, according to a specialist.

Dr. Brian Hainline is the author of "Back Pain Understood: A Cutting-Edge Approach to Healing Your Back," and the chief medical officer of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which is under way.

Back pain can be a natural part of getting older, he says, especially if you don't care for your back as well as you should

Why do our backs become crankier as we age?

Our lower backs tend to degenerate at the level of the disks that separate the vertebrae, Hainline explained on The Early Show Tuesday. And our backs start to have trouble adapting to our bodies' needs. It's much like a car without good shock absorbers.

We have two choices, he observed: Either we build up the shocks, or we use different roads to get where we're going.

One problem many of us have is that our muscles atrophy. We spend most of our days sitting. Then, we suddenly try to be active during the weekend and expect our backs to be ready to perform as we want. But our backs may not be prepared to come through.

As we age, Hainline continued, there will be some loss of back function no matter what we do.

But exercising the right way can preserve much of that function, he emphasized.

The important thing is that we be mindful of doing exercise for its own sake. Exercise that helps our backs improve isn't competitive exercise, it's exercise designed to be exercise.

Good back-strengthening exercises may include walking, swimming, bike riding, pilates, and yoga.

But Hainline cautions that you shouldn't suddenly do vigorous exercise if your back muscles are out of shape. That even includes yoga. Take it easy. Yoga generally has long-term benefits, but if it's done quickly, it can cause injuries.

With any of the exercises, it's important not to push through the pain, Hainline says. You must acknowledge the pain as a signal to take it easier. If your leg muscles or your back are tight, don't force them through the movement you desire. Get into it more slowly.

How do you know you need medical help for your back?

There are two signs, Hainline says: when back pain recurs, and when you feel it every few days.

Also, remember that the causes of back pain aren't only physical. Emotions are a huge component. If you're tense, or under pressure, or enraged, the pressure can build up in your back.

Hainline, who's treated some of the most famous names in tennis, says back injuries stemming from that sport generally don't differ from the ones you he mentioned, whether players are pros or just engage for fun. The causes are the same, Hainline says, and so are the solutions, with one notable exception: Some tennis players actually give themselves stress fractures of a bone that supports the lumbar region.

For the majority of tennis-related back injuries that don't involve fractures, the first step is rest. Then, do exercise of the sort he suggested, keeping in mind that your back is strained. If you need to dial back your game for a time, so be it. When you do play, be especially sure you're warmed up properly. And remember that, for a while, you're doing your physical activities as exercise, not as competition.

To read excerpts of "Back Pain Understood," click here and here.

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