By LINDSEY TANNER, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) — It happened to nurse Jane Byron years after an in-line skating fall, business owner Haralee Weintraub while doing "men's" 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 or denied. 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 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.
Injuries that need immediate treatment cause excruciating, unrelenting pain, or force you to immediately stop your activity and prevent normal motion. 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. Even if taking a few steps is painful, 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 over 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 with self-help, 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 is often caused by repetitive action, such as swinging a golf club or tennis racket, especially when not using the proper form.
—Tears to the meniscus, cartilage that cushions the knee but that becomes more brittle with age and prone to injury, especially from sudden twisting. 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, and using the back instead of leg muscles to lift heavy weights 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 New York City cancer nurse is a self-described exercise "maniac." Her daily workouts often include walking, biking, leg pressing 400-pound weights and stair-climbing at her gym.
All that exercise has kept her extremely fit, and she rejects the idea that she might be overdoing it. So she had some choice words for the doctor who suggested she consider slowing down a bit when her right knee swelled up six years ago.
His diagnosis was torn cartilage likely from a 1999 fall while in-line skating. Byron had never been in pain nor sought treatment for that injury until the swelling began.
She had the cartilage surgically repaired and injections of lubricant medicine for knee arthritis. But she continued rigorous workouts right up until 2010, when she developed hip pain, probably from walking funny to favor her bum knee. 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, because exercise has so many health benefits, said Dr. Steven Haas, an orthopedic specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.