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April 3, 2014

Seniors Living With Chronic Pain

The number of Americans who suffer from chronic pain annually is staggering! Seniors Living With Chronic PainA recent report by the Institute of Medicine estimates the number of people who live with persistent pain -- pain that lasts for more than 3 to 6 months -- to be 100 million. Unfortunately, seniors are far more likely than the average adult to be among those that suffer from it. Up to 88% of older adults report some form of chronic pain. But the good news is that older adults working with their healthcare provider can learn to manage their condition and live a full life in spite of pain, no matter what their age.

Seniors are more vulnerable to chronic pain for a number of reasons including greater joint and muscle wear and tear, the presence of other medical conditions, and a general decrease in activity levels. They are also more at risk for accidents that can lead to chronic pain.

About 20% of senior adults report taking pain medications several times per week, usually for joint or muscle related pain. The more common types of chronic pain seniors tend to have are:

  • Arthritis / joint pain
  • Peripheral neuropathy, often associated with diabetes
  • Central pain syndrome, often associated with stroke
  • Repetitive strain injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Lingering pain from injuries, such as rotator cuff tear or hip fracture
  • Cancer pain
  • Depression-associated pain

As a caregiver, it's important to know that dealing with chronic pain in seniors can be more challenging because it can be harder to diagnose and treat. Why? Well statistics show that older adults are less likely to be forthcoming about their pain when speaking with their doctors. This could be out of fear of potential illness, or because they do not want to seem vulnerable. Oftentimes seniors feel that pain comes with age, and that reporting it is unnecessary. Some may also have more trouble communicating their pain because of decreased hearing, compromised abilities associated with a stroke or even dementia. The result for many seniors is that it leaves them trying to cope with chronic pain unguided, and may also leave them open to anxiety and depression.

Falls among the senior population generally cause more damage and complications than they do among younger adults, too. Older adults who have chronic joint pain or muscle aches, especially in the legs, are 50% more prone to falling than seniors that don't have it. This is bad news in general for seniors because as when you couple an injury from a fall with a persistent pain condition, there is a longer recovery period and a return to a potentially lower quality of life.

There can also be more potential complications from typical pain medications. Older adults tend to have more adverse reactions to pain medications which means that medication needs to be monitored more closely in seniors, and that medication changes require more time. This can be frustrating for both the individual and the healthcare provider. Some seniors simply won't take pain medications because they do not want to suffer the side effects.

Finally, since seniors may already have other medical conditions that require regular medications such as heart disease, lung disorders, diabetes and blood pressure problems, close monitoring of all the medications he or she takes is required to ensure that medication interactions do not occur.

While you cannot turn the clock back and make the senior in your life young again, as a caregiver there are some things you can do to help him or her manage chronic pain better. Here are a few tips to help seniors who suffer from chronic pain get on with life.

  • Be Honest With The Doctor 
    Your senior doesn't have to suffer silently and live with chronic pain. Encourage him or her to talk honestly about how they feel so that the doctor can help diagnose the reason behind the pain to determine a treatment that works for his or her individual needs.
  • Take Medications As Directed
    Seniors are more vulnerable to medication side effects, drug interactions and withdrawal symptoms from stopping medications suddenly. To decrease the risk of harmful or unpleasant pain medication withdrawal effects, make sure her or she follows the doctor's instructions as accurately as possible. If a medication is simply not working, or if your senior doesn't want to take it any longer, the senior should consult a doctor first before making any changes.
  • Use Assistive Devices
    Many seniors feel that using a medical device like a walker or a cane makes them look old, or makes them a potential target for crime. However, such devices are intended to make life easier and can save him or her from pain in the long run. Using a walker widens their base of support and reduced the risk of falling. Using a chair in the shower can save their legs some work and help to avoid extra hip or back pain. If a doctor or therapist has prescribed a medical device, it is usually for good reason. Encourage the older adult in your life to use them. He or she might find it makes life easier and more pain-free.
  • Be Active, Within Reason
    Seniors are usually more sedentary than younger adults. It may be hard to motivate your senior loved one to get up and exercise if he or she has chronic pain. However, regular activity keeps muscles in better shape and stamina up. The phrase \"use it or lose it,\" definitely applies here. Suggest that he or she check with the doctor about taking up a water aerobics class, or going walking with some friends. With the doctor's approval, check into activities at the local senior center. Not only could they be good for your senior's body, but also provide wonderful opportunities for social interaction
  • Get Support From Friends or Peers
    Sometimes knowing that you are not alone and others are feeling the same way will help give your senior some peace of mind. Suggest talking with friends, or check out a local support group for seniors. Many pain support groups can be found online as well, such as the Chronic Pain Forum. Peers can provide a listening ear, give advice on what works for them or even give a referral to a good pain specialist.

Though chronic pain in older adults may be difficult to diagnose and treat, a little awareness can make all the difference in the quality of life your senior can have and finding the support your senior needs can get him or her on the road to coping with chronic pain.

"When Seniors Have Chronic Pain: Diagnosing, Treating and Managing Chronic Pain in Older Adults,\" From Erica Jacques, former Guide, Updated June 03, 2010, Guide
"Fighting Pain\", by Peter Jaret, AARP Bulletin/Real Possibilities, April 2013
"Growing Burden of Persistent Pain Calls For More Medical Innovation,\" New Silver Book: Persistent Pain Released at Capital Hill Briefing, February 20, 2013,
"5 Tips for Seniors With Chronic Pain \", Helping Seniors Cope With Chronic Pain From Erica Jacques, former Guide, Updated May 27, 2009, Guide
"Risks of Seniors With Chronic Pain: Exploring The Most Common Risks of Chronic Pain in Older Adults\", From Erica Jacques, former Guide, Updated May 26, 2009, Guide

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