The big myth is that pain is normal for seniors. It’s not. What is true of pain is that (1) it’s the most feared complication of illness, (2) often under-treated (3) and effects mood, functioning and quality of life. Many seniors feel that it’s just part of aging so they don’t report it but there are plenty of options for reducing and even eliminating pain. Because many seniors do experience varying levels and durations of pain, we’ll explore some of the effective pain treatment options.
What is Pain?
According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, pain is “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage or both.” There are two classes of pain: acute and chronic (persistent).
Types of Pain
Chronic pain usually lasts from 3 to 6 months and can produce long-term psychological problems. It’s not normal and if left untreated can greatly limit your ability to sleep, walk and perform daily tasks. Acute pain begins distinctly and lasts a short time, usually less than 30 days. It can be accompanied by elevated heart rate and blood pressure. You could feel this pain after surgery, a broken bone or infected tooth. Common Causes of Senior Pain
Osteoarthritis (back, knees, hips)
Night-time leg cramps
Claudicating or limping from pain usually caused by poor blood circulation
Neuropathies or damage to nerves of the peripheral nervous system
Trauma from falls
Post surgery pain
Senior Pain Data
Over half those 65 and older aren’t functioning at an optimal level because of pain.
From 47-80% of seniors living at home don’t receive pain care.
From16-27% of seniors in extended care facilities doesn’t receive pain care.
18% of the elderly take analgesic meds for pain daily or more than 3x per week.
71% take prescription pain relievers
22% take over-the-counter pain relievers
70% of veterans have a pain-related disability
Getting to the Bottom of Pain
Before you see a doctor about your pain, the National Institute of Aging recommends you think about these pain-related questions.
Where does it hurt?
When did it start? Does the pain come and go?
What does it feel like? Is the pain sharp, dull, or burning? Would you use some other word to describe it?
When do you feel the pain? In the morning? In the evening? After eating? Or when?
Is there anything you do that makes the pain feel better or worse? For example, if you use a heating pad or ice pack, does that help? Does changing your position from lying down to sitting up make it better? Have you tried any over-the-counter medications for it?
Do you have other symptoms?
After evaluating your medical history and determining the causes of pain, your doctor can make recommendations for treatment. There are a number of options and sometimes it takes some trial and error to find the best course of action. Here are some treatment options the National Institute of Aging recommends:
Analgesics such as Acetaminophen are effective for mild to moderate pain. It is not habit-forming but can be dangerous to your liver if taken in high doses.
Opioid pain relievers (narcotics) are powerful prescription drugs used to treat moderate to severe pain. They are often prescribed for pain after surgery. They can be addictive and can cause side effects like nausea, constipation, and sleepiness. Several examples are codeine, morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. Some brand names are Vicodin, Lortab, Percocet, and Oxycontin. These options can lead to addiction (even in seniors). Look at www.Recoverycorps.org for help with addiction in seniors.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are your common aspirin and ibuprofen. These over-the-counter pain relievers can have side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness. And they can be unsafe for people who have high blood pressure.
Cold Laser Therapy uses low-level cold lasers to stimulate damaged tissue to promote healing and decrease pain.
Acupuncture uses tiny needles to stimulate and relieve pain from specific parts of your body.
Cognitive behavior therapy teaches you how to reduce your reaction to pain.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses electrical impulses to stimulate nerves in order to relieve pain.
Hypnosis uses focused attention to help manage pain.
Massage therapy can release tension in tight muscles.
Exercising (physical therapy) such as weight training, stretching, walking, yoga and Pilates can be effective for pain management if done properly.
Relaxation and herbal therapies use a variety of non-traditional methods to help you manage pain. If you are a senior or caregiver for a senior with long-term pain, expect the best result when you combine one or all of these options.