Chronic Pain and the Baby Boomer

I had an aha moment on the subject of baby boomer pain a few years ago. My sister and brother-in-law had come to visit, and we were sitting around the living room with them, shooting the breeze. At some point the four of us decided it was time to get out and do something. We all stood up at once—and let out an impromptu collective groan that could probably be heard down the block.

As a Web- and print-based journalist, I sit a lot at my computer. But it’s not like we four, now in our early 60s, were or are couch potatoes. We’re not overweight—or not much. Like a lot of pro-age baby boomers, we’re active. My husband goes to the Y pretty much every day to run on the treadmill, row on a machine, and/or do push-ups and sit-ups. My sister and I are into Zumba, hip-hop, and West African dance. And my brother-in-law—a bricklayer who’s worked in construction for nearly 40 years—relaxes by playing hockey and handball.

But pain and pain management are facts of life as our bodies begin to show the wear and tear of decades of use. The precise incidence of pain among baby boomers is difficult to gauge, however.A June 2011 report on pain by the federal Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (I.O.M.) says that “reliable data are lacking on the full scope of the problem, especially among those currently under diagnosed and under treated” (a category that includes “older people”). As a result, the IOM calls for the collection of data on pain and pain management to be prioritized and standardized.

The report is clear, though, on a few facts: about 100 million Americans of all ages experience chronic pain in any given year, and the cost—both in treatment and lost productivity—may be as high as $635 billion per year.

No one can cite chapter and verse on the exact number of baby boomers now in pain, but it’s only common sense that as baby boomers age, they’ll encounter more and more of the age-related musculoskeletal problems that cause pain. Arthritis and low back problems are the big culprits, accounting for up to 60 percent of chronic-pain cases, according to a March 2011 Time magazine story quoting from the National Center for Health Statistics.

If you’re hurting, you’re not alone. And pro-age baby boomers don’t tend to suffer in silence. Some resort to prescription pain drugs, while others try pricey lifestyle changes (for instance, yoga classes and regular massages). Lower-cost, at-home alternatives include OTC remedies (Drug Store News is very happy about that) and TENS therapy. TENS, which stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, is thought to scramble pain messages  and/or stimulate the production of the body’s own opioids. We might bemoan the need for pain management, but let’s face it: we’re not getting any younger.

By Laura Molzahn, A baby boomer and a Web- and print-based journalist.