Injured boomers, beware: Know when to see doctor
By LINDSEY TANNER
In this Feb. 10, 2012 photo, Jane Byron poses for a photograph in a park near her home in the Queens borough of New York. Byron, 51, a nurse, has had two knee replacements. Costly knee replacements have more than tripled in people aged 45-64 in recent years and a study released last week found that nearly 1 in 20 Americans older than 50 have these artificial joints. But active boomers can avoid that kind of drastic treatment by properly managing aches and pains. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
It happened to nurse Jane Byron years after an in-line skating fall, business owner Haralee Weintraub while doing push-ups, and avid cyclist Gene Wilberg while lifting a heavy box.
“It” is that pop, strain or suddenly swollen joint that reminds active older adults they aren’t as young as they’d like to think.
Even among the fittest baby boomers, aging bodies just aren’t as nimble as young ones, and they’re more prone to minor damage that can turn serious if ignored. But not every twist or turn needs medical attention, and knowing when it’s OK to self-treat pays off in the long run, in dollars and in health.
Costly knee replacements have more than tripled in people ages 45 to 64 in recent years, and a recent study found that almost 1 in 20 Americans older than 50 have these artificial joints. But active boomers can avoid that kind of drastic treatment by properly managing aches and pains.
Injuries that need immediate treatment cause excruciating, unrelenting pain, or force you to immediately stop your activity. Examples are a swollen, bent elbow that won’t straighten, or a knee that collapses when you try to stand, said Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph, a sports medicine specialist at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center.
Treatment for more run-of-the mill activity-related injuries is less clear-cut.
A good rule of thumb for lower-body injuries is this: “If you’re able to bear weight, it’s safe to self-treat,” at least initially. Just being able to put weight on an injury means it’s probably not a medical emergency, Bush-Joseph said.
The key for most injuries is what happens during the next two to three days. If things start to improve — less pain, more range of motion — then there’s often no need to see a doctor. But if pain or swelling don’t subside, then it’s time to make an appointment.
Common injuries in active boomers include:
◆ Tendinitis — painful inflamed tendons in the elbow, shoulder or knee. The condition often is caused by repetitive action, such as swinging a golf club.
◆ Tears to the meniscus, cartilage that cushions the knee but that becomes more brittle with age and prone to injury. Tears often cause a “pop” sensation and a feeling like the knee is catching while walking.
◆ Back pain, often from arthritis or aging discs in the lower spine. Impact exercise, including running, can contribute.
Most can be treated with things like ice to curb swelling immediately after the injury, hot pads or other heat treatment for pain, over-the-counter painkillers, and rest.
In some ways, Jane Byron exemplifies the best — and worst — ways to handle those injuries.
At 51, the cancer nurse is a self-described exercise “maniac.” Her daily workouts often include walking, biking and stair-climbing at her gym.
All that exercise has kept her extremely fit, so she had some choice words for the doctor who suggested she consider slowing down when her right knee swelled up six years ago.
His diagnosis was torn cartilage likely from a 1999 fall while in-line skating.
She had the cartilage surgically repaired and injections of lubricant medicine for knee arthritis. But she continued rigorous workouts up until 2010, when she developed hip pain. By then she needed both knees replaced, but a physical therapist told her that being so fit would speed her recovery. Within a week after both surgeries, she was back riding an indoor bike.
Overdoing it can aggravate minor injuries, but abandoning activity isn’t a good solution, either, said Dr. Steven Haas, an orthopedic specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Instead, make sure you’re well-conditioned and “listen to your body,” Haas said.
Haralee Weintraub, 58, changed her exercise routine after injuring her back during a “boot-camp” class at her gym two years ago. The first time it happened, the online business owner was doing “full-out toe men’s push-ups.” A few months later the same thing happened during leg squats — pain that started in her lower back and shot down her leg. Because it was hard to stand, she went both times to the doctor, who diagnosed sciatica, common nerve pain likely caused by an aging disc in her lower back.
A physical therapist had her do exercises to strengthen muscles in her abdomen and near the sciatic nerve in her back, and leg exercises to stretch the gluteal muscles.
Unlike Weintraub, Gene Wilberg tried to tough out his injury, which probably prolonged his recovery.
The 62-year-old Naperville business consultant was helping his daughter move into an apartment two years ago when he felt a sudden pain in his upper right arm while lifting a box. The pain persisted, and he could no longer do simple things like open jars. Eve ntually, he just stopped using that arm.
After a few months, Wilberg went to the doctor, who found a partial bicep tendon tear in his upper arm. Surgery was a possibility, but Wilberg wanted to try physical therapy instead. It took about four months to get his arm back in shape, lifting light dumbbells and using resistance bands.
“If you wait too long, sometimes you actually just end up delaying your overall recovery” and adding to the cost of medical treatment, said Nathan Sels, Weintraub’s physical therapist.