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February 2014

Many Older Adults Struggle With Pain

Pain is like an alarm system. It signals when something is wrong in your body. It may last only minutes or linger for months. For many older adults, pain may be a constant companion, suggests a recent study. It may even limit daily activities.

 

A persistent problem

In the journal Pain, researchers estimated pain's prevalence among older adults in the U.S. They used a nationally representative sample of more than 8,200 people ages 65 and older. They found that more than half of study participants struggled with pain in the previous month. That equates to more than 18.7 million older adults with persistent pain nationwide.

Women were more likely than men to suffer pain. Not surprisingly, older adults with arthritis, osteoporosis, and depression also reported feeling more body aches. So, too, did those who were overweight or living with more than one disease, such as diabetes and arthritis.

The back and knees were the most common pain sites. Study participants also frequently noted pain in the shoulders, hips, and neck. What's more, pain was usually not restricted to one area of the body. Nearly three-quarters of older adults said they felt pain in multiple spots.

The researchers also found that pain may be a compounding factor for disability. More older Americans have problems performing daily activities. In the study, older adults with pain were 70% more likely to have such troubles. For instance, they couldn't walk a half mile, walk up 20 stairs, or lift 20 pounds.

Not necessarily permanent

Many treatments are available to help ease pain. But many older adults aren't doing all they can to manage it. They aren't taking pain-relieving medication. Or they aren't combining medication with other treatment options for the best pain relief.

Painkillers, such as acetaminophen and aspirin, can effectively control pain. But side effects can be an issue. For instance, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and ulcers. The risk for these side effects may keep many people from sticking with pain medication.

Besides medicine, moderate exercise and physical therapy can help reduce many types of pain. Other potential treatments include acupuncture, massage, relaxation methods, and counseling. Science has yet to completely prove the effectiveness of these complementary and alternative medicine approaches. But some people have found them helpful. Talk with your doctor first before trying one.

Do you suffer from chronic pain? Click here for more ways to manage it.

Talking With Your Doctor About Pain

Pain isn’t a natural part of aging—you don’t have to live with it. Your doctor can help you find effective treatments. But you need to be able to accurately describe your pain. Before talking with your doctor, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where does your body hurt?

  • Is the pain constant or occasional?

  • Is the pain sharp, dull, or burning?

  • Is there a certain time when it hurts, such as in the morning or after moving a certain way?

  • Does anything, such as medication or heat, help ease the pain?

  • Do you have any other symptoms with the pain?

Online resources

American Chronic Pain Association

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke 

National Institute on Aging