Chronic Pain in Older Adults

Gray hair, wrinkled skin and occasional forgetfulness are all common for adults as they age and are nothing to worry about. Chronic pain, which most seniors think is normal, is actually not something to just brush off. Chronic pain is pain that lasts usually three months or longer. Fifty percent of seniors who live at home say they suffer from chronic pain, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Almost three-fifths of adults 65 years and older have pain that has lasted one year or longer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic pain can be debilitating, but there are ways to manage it.

Chronic pain may be caused by an injury, arthritis, headaches or backaches. The physical pain is not the only symptom of chronic pain. Depression, anxiety, isolation, decreased strength and sleeplessness are also possible symptoms of chronic pain, according to the NIH.

Before a treatment plan can be decided, the senior needs to determine how bad the pain is. Caregivers can help with this by saying how much or how little they have noticed the pain interfering in their loved ones’ lives. The American Nurses Association suggests writing down when pain occurs and what causes or worsens the pain.

The goal of treatment is to reduce the pain so the senior can comfortably function each day. For mild pain, medications such as Tylenol and ibuprofen are sometimes good options. If the pain is moderate or severe, those medications would not be strong enough. However, the stronger medications, such as non-steroidal drugs and opiates, while effective, pose major health risks or minor problems. Non-steroidal drugs can cause high blood pressure, stroke or heart attack in an elderly patient. Opiates have side effects including fatigue, constipation and itching, which may affect quality of life.

While pain medications aren’t always the top pick for seniors, there are other effective, non-pharmacologic treatments for the chronic pain. Different treatments, which may be used in conjunction with each other include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Hot and cold therapy: This means using a heating pad then an ice pack, which can reduce both pain and inflammation.
  • Exercise: Swimming, yoga, etc.
  • Physical therapy

If you are a caregiver, there are other types of treatments to incorporate into your loved one’s routine. They are ways to distract from the pain and help the senior relax. Music therapy, humor, reading a book and holding a conversation are all techniques to distract from the pain.

If seniors have or suspect they have chronic pain, a doctor can help diagnose and treat the pain. Caregivers can be important during doctors’ visits to communicate things they have noticed about the pain and information the senior may be forgetting. Caregivers may also have questions their loved ones don’t have, so they can ask those at the visits, as well.

If you or your loved one has chronic pain, remember there is hope. With the proper treatment plan, you or your loved one can get back to having a manageable daily life.