Our mindset, coupled with pain, steals our energy and youth.

It’s ironic to me that our culture spends millions of dollars seeking to evade the aging process, without truly understanding what aging and youthfulness are. The body is designed to age; we die to make room for new lives coming into the world. Yeah, get used to that thought. The best we can do is care well for what we have, while we have it. All while maintaining a healthy and positive mindset. These go a long way in cultivating and sustaining a healthy, aging “youthfulness.”

True youthfulness incorporates curiosity about any number of things, along with a kind and helpful spirit, flexibility, humility, patience and determination, a lively sense of humor, and pursuing an active lifestyle as best one can. Useful Youth is more of a mindset than an age.

How many teenagers, twenty or thirty-year-olds do you know who are pessimistic, grumpy, self-centered, and stuck in a rigid mindset? They are old before their time. I call that Useless Youth. It too is a mindset, characterized by boredom and lack of focus. Useless Youth needs to be entertained, rather than be out exploring and creating.

To be honest, growing older is not easy. Pain often comes with the process. The pain that comes with growing old has a way of creeping in and stealing dreams. “I don’t want to look like a bent-over old lady, even if I am one,” one octogenarian told me. “I’ve got things to do. I don’t have time to be old and decrepit,” another said.

A patient in her mid-70’s came in, seeking relief from relentless back pain. She had led an active life, having been raised by a professional dancer, and had been a dancer herself. Eunice was sharp-witted, smart, and dreamed of helping out with a wildlife rehabilitation hospital. However, her pain was interfering with this dream.

She loved to walk, but now walking more than 100 feet “killed her”. Even sitting was awful. She had had 1 cortisone injection which worked well for 6 months. Then she had another, the effects lasting only 6 weeks. The pain was so severe, and on top of that, she began experiencing cardiac problems. Sometimes, one problem seems to enhance the other.

She had to wait for the cardiac medication to run its course before the medical team would consider another cortisone injection.

In this scenario, the cardiologist sent her to me. He told her, “If anyone can help you right now, it’s Karen.”

So there she sat, hopeful on one hand, discouraged and ready to “throw in the towel,” on the other. Except her goal kept her from the latter, as well as her sense of humor.

Then one day, she waltzed into my office. “I can walk and it doesn’t hurt!” She was jubilant.

Joan had been hurting for so long, and the only thing in the past that had relieved her was a steroid. Now, with activating the right muscles during activity and rest, her pain was resolving. That seemed pretty remarkable to her. Pain is a drain, and specifically, it drains energy. Probably this is the greatest culprit in inviting in the “feeling” of aging. It makes you tired and feeling oh so old.

Thanks to her very youthful mindset, I could teach her my principles, being as pragmatic for her as possible. Not everyone wants to learn, but when they do, it’s remarkable the ground they can cover and in the process, recover function. Within 3 visits she got the hang of it, and by the 3rd visit had stopped experiencing her debilitating symptoms.

What made the difference? She learned to power her body better and centralize the control. From there, she was better able to improve her strength, participating in graded strengthening exercises. She worked hard, cracking jokes along the way. Being able to stand and walk mostly pain-free practically made her giddy and enabled her to be more apt to participate in even more exercises, rather than lying down and resting most of the day.

How did she get to her place of pain? She’s not even sure, other than maybe some lazy, “schleppy” habits with some weight gain crept in. “You really have to stay on your game, don’t you?” she quipped. She was referring to the fact that aging is not this place where you get to keep your fitness level and mobility ability from youth or even middle age and coast on it. You have to work even harder to maintain your abilities. And that seems unfair, especially nearing the end of a long life lived well.

Pain also can potentially come from some of our medications, so that is something to watch, be aware of, and if you are experiencing an increase in pain, talk to your physical therapist and your medical doctor. Why your physical therapist? Because we can run a quick analysis through a website called Epocrates.com that will be able to show what adverse reactions are associated with a given medication.

As an example, I once had a patient come to me for severe back pain following his rehabilitation for his knee replacements. “Jim, did you speak with your PT that you were coming here?” I asked. He had. “She’s interested in what your perspective is.”

After a complete assessment, I also took his medication list, and did an analysis. Four of his five medications had muscle pain, joint pain, and back pain as possible side effects. “Jim, I recommend you call your MD and talk to him about your meds, and see if there is something you can drop. Your pain is keeping you awake, and that is never good, as that will prevent healing.”

He immediately called his MD and was able to schedule an appointment within a few days. His doctor said, “Well, let’s take you off of the sleep aid Ambien since it doesn’t seem to be helping you sleep.” Within two days his back pain disappeared. And it stayed away. He called me jubilantly.

“Man!!! Do I feel better!!! No more back pain and bonus! I am sleeping better!”

With both patients, enthusiasm and childlike wonder and awe returned. They practically skipped out of my office. Reducing pain dramatically does that. It makes you feel like you have a new lease on life.

Just ask Joan who is now helping rehabilitate wounded wild animals. Or watch Jim get down on the floor with his grandkids, and get back up, relatively pain-free. You try that when you’re in your eighties. If you want to be able to do that, it starts now, with your mindset. Useful Youth or Useless Youth. You get to decide.

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