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Pain

Pain in the Elderly: When Someone You Love Is in Pain


Medically Reviewed On: December 22, 2010

While arthritis is the most common cause of pain for people over age 65, circulatory problems, shingles, certain bowel diseases and cancer are other common reasons for pain in older people. Nerve damage can also cause severe and constant pain.

Some people think that pain is natural with old age or that when older people are not clear in explaining the cause of their pain they are just complaining. Both of these views are wrong. There is almost always a real problem behind the aches and pains.

Pain can lead to other problems. People with pain may lose the ability to move around and do everyday activities. They may have trouble sleeping, experience bad moods and have a poor self-image. People with pain also often have anxiety or depression. They may be at greater risk for falls, weight loss, poor concentration and difficulties with relationships.

Most pain can be controlled, usually through a combination of drug and non-drug strategies, which should be discussed with a healthcare provider.

Caring for someone in pain or at risk for pain is often an ongoing process. As various strategies are tried, it may help to keep in mind two basic principles:

  • Believe the person you are caring for. People with pain are the only ones who know how much pain they are feeling. Pain is whatever the older person says it is and exists whenever he or she says it does. If people with pain feel that others do not believe them, they become upset and may stop reporting their pain accurately. This makes controlling the pain more difficult.
  • Every person has the right to good pain control. Your job as a caregiver is to make sure that good pain control is provided. Tell health professionals if pain does not improve with treatment and ask them to try new treatments until the pain is controlled. Your goals are to help evaluate and relieve pain and to keep health professionals informed about pain levels and responses to pain treatments.

What You Can Do to Help

Evaluate pain:

  • Ask about the pain. No medical test can tell you whether or not a person is in pain. The best way to find out if a person is in pain is to ask. A good way of asking is to say, “How bad is your pain right now on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you ever had?” Don't contradict or argue about these ratings.
  • Listen for words other than "pain." Older people may use different words to describe their pain, such as “discomfort,” “soreness” or “ache.”
  • Look for behavior or body language that could be a response to pain. The older person may be unwilling to report pain or be unable to communicate about pain in words. Behaviors to look for include facial expressions or groaning when moved.

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