top of page
  • Writer's pictureChristian Companions

Unmasking the Silent Struggle: Chronic Pain in Our Elders

Updated: May 8

Eighty-five-year-old Grace slowly lowered herself into her favorite armchair, grimacing as a familiar ache shot through her knees and hips. 

The chronic pain that had plagued her for years was an unwelcome companion, dampening her spirits and limiting her daily activities.

Despite her struggles, Grace mustered a warm smile for her daughter who had just arrived to help care for her. 

Their quiet morning routine was a poignant reminder that chronic pain among the elderly is an often unseen yet deeply challenging reality. Impacting over half of adults over 65, persistent pain is part of a complex issue that demands greater attention and empathetic care strategies.

Here at Christian Companions Houston, we understand just how serious an issue chronic pain poses to our beloved seniors. In this guide, we’ll explore the pervasive nature of chronic pain and explore avenues to better support and address the complex pain management needs of our aging population.

Understanding Chronic Pain in the Elderly

Chronic pain, unlike acute pain, is not just a symptom of an underlying illness but is a condition in itself. It persists or recurs for more than three months and often doesn't correlate with any identifiable cause or damage. As individuals age, they are more likely to experience chronic pain due to various factors like age-related diseases, surgeries, and deterioration.

Notably, chronic pain is not merely an inevitability of aging. With sufficient knowledge about its management, caregivers can significantly improve the quality of life for seniors suffering from chronic pain.

Chronic Pain in Seniors: Prevalence and Impact

Chronic pain affects a large portion of the elderly population, leading to functional disability, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, as well as social isolation. Studies indicate that nearly 53% of adults over the age of 65 experience persistent pain. The repercussions of untreated or undertreated chronic pain can lead to avoidance of activity, reduced mobility, increased risk of falls, and a decline in the overall quality of life.

Under reporting of Pain in the Elderly

For many older adults, the silent struggle with chronic pain is an unfortunate reality. Too often, misconceptions about aging lead seniors to accept persistent aches and discomfort as an inevitable part of growing older. Others may harbor fears about medical procedures or medications, causing them to suffer in silence rather than seeking help. This reluctance to report ongoing pain results in a troubling pattern of undertreatment, leaving many elders to endure unnecessary suffering.

Caregiving for Seniors with Chronic Pain

Caregivers, whether family members or professional care providers, play a pivotal role in managing chronic pain in the elderly. From accurately assessing the pain to collaborating with healthcare providers for pain management, caregivers can significantly enhance the quality of life for seniors dealing with chronic pain.

Evaluating Pain in the Elderly: Strategies for Effective Care

Accurately assessing chronic pain in older adults is critical for their well-being, yet often overlooked. As we age, communicating persistent discomfort becomes challenging, making caregivers invaluable in recognizing subtle pain signs through their close understanding of seniors' daily routines.

However, while caregivers play a crucial role, involving medical professionals with expertise in interpreting complex pain factors is equally essential for comprehensive evaluation.

Possible ways of helping seniors assess and manage their pain include:

Pain Assessment Scales/Tools

Utilize validated pain scales like the Verbal Descriptor Scale, Visual Analog Scale, or Faces Pain Scale to help seniors self-report their pain levels.

Behavioral observation

Closely observe for non-verbal pain behaviors like facial expressions (grimacing, frowning), body movements (guarding, rigid posture), vocalizations (groaning, grunting), and changes in activity levels or appetite.

Physical examination

Conduct gentle palpation and movement of affected areas to check for tenderness, swelling, or limited range of motion indicative of pain.

Functional assessments

Evaluate ability to perform daily activities and note any limitations in mobility, self-care, sleep patterns or social engagement that could signal undertreated pain.

Pain mapping

Have the senior identify and mark areas of pain on a body outline or map to pinpoint location and radiation patterns.

Pain diaries

Ask seniors to track details like pain timing, severity, quality and aggravating/ relieving factors in a written diary.

Pain Management Through Medications: Key Considerations

Managing chronic pain in the elderly through pharmacologic intervention poses unique challenges. As we age, our bodies undergo changes that alter how drugs are processed, increasing the risk of adverse reactions and potential interactions with other medications. The use of opioid painkillers carries an elevated risk of addiction in this population. 

Healthcare providers have the difficult task of carefully navigating these hazards, weighing the need for pain relief against the vulnerabilities that come with advanced age and multiple therapies. Vigilance and a meticulous approach are crucial when prescribing pain medications to seniors.

Some risk factors include: 

Increased Risk of Adverse Drug Reactions

As people age, physiological changes occur that can affect how drugs are absorbed, distributed, metabolized and eliminated from the body. This makes seniors more susceptible to adverse drug reactions, even at typical dosages.

Potential for Drug Interactions

Elderly patients often have multiple chronic conditions requiring several medications. This increases the likelihood of harmful drug-drug interactions that can exacerbate side effects or reduce the intended therapeutic effects.

Risk of Addiction and Oversedation with Opioids

Opioid analgesics are commonly prescribed for chronic pain, but carry dangers like developing dependence, addiction, oversedation, respiratory depression and increased fall risk - especially concerning for the frail elderly.

Cognitive impairment effects

Some pain medications like opioids can worsen existing cognitive deficits in elderly patients with dementia or delirium, leading to increased confusion and accidents.

Holistic Pain Relief: Nonpharmacologic Strategies and Techniques

Physical Therapy/Exercise

Gentle exercises and physical therapy can help improve mobility, flexibility, strength and overall function in seniors with chronic pain. Low-impact activities like walking, swimming, or tai chi can reduce joint stiffness and muscle tension.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT helps patients change negative thought patterns and behaviors around their pain. Techniques like relaxation, pacing, and coping strategies give seniors more control in managing their symptoms.

Massage Therapy

Therapeutic massage can increase blood flow, relax tense muscles, and release endorphins to relieve muscle pain and joint aches, especially for conditions like osteoarthritis.

Heat/Cold Therapy

Applying heat pads or ice packs can temporarily reduce inflammation, muscle spasms and joint stiffness associated with chronic pain conditions.

Mind-Body Techniques

Practices like meditation, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi and guided imagery can promote relaxation and improve psychological coping with chronic pain.

These non-pharmacological approaches can be used alone or in combination with medications as part of a multidisciplinary approach, helping avoid over-reliance on drugs and their associated risks in the elderly population.

Chronic Pain Management Workshops

Education plays a crucial role in managing chronic pain. Through workshops and classes, seniors and their caregivers can learn how to cope with chronic pain effectively. They can learn about pain management, goal-based therapy, pain assessment, and the appropriate use of complementary and alternative treatments.

Pain and Comorbidities: A Complex Relationship

Chronic pain in the elderly is often associated with other health conditions, creating a complex relationship that requires careful management. Some of these conditions include neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, depression, burning mouth syndrome, and viral infections.

Neurodegenerative Diseases and Pain

Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s often come with chronic pain as a comorbidity. This relationship is complex and involves changes in pain perception, increased pain tolerance, and altered central mechanisms of pain transmission.

Depression and Pain

Depression is another comorbidity often seen in seniors with chronic pain. The relationship between depression and chronic pain is bidirectional – each can be a risk factor for the other. Therefore, managing chronic pain in seniors also involves addressing any underlying psychological issues.

Burning Mouth Syndrome and Pain

Burning mouth syndrome (BMS) is a chronic oral pain condition that predominantly affects postmenopausal women. It's often associated with depression and anxiety, further complicating the management of pain in seniors with this condition.

Viral Infections and Pain

Certain viral infections, such as chikungunya virus infection and herpes simplex virus, can cause chronic pain in seniors. Furthermore, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to consider viral infections as a potential source of chronic pain in the elderly.

Concluding on a Note of Hope

Chronic pain is a multifaceted and often debilitating condition that can profoundly impact the quality of life for older adults. For those entrusted with the care of our elders, understanding the unique challenges and complexities of managing chronic pain in this vulnerable population is extremely important.

It is a journey that extends far beyond the realm of pharmacological interventions alone. While medication can undoubtedly play a role in alleviating discomfort, a holistic approach that incorporates non-pharmacological therapies is often necessary to truly improve the overall well-being of seniors grappling with persistent pain.

By embracing a comprehensive and tailored approach, one that harmonizes pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions, fosters education, and thoughtfully addresses comorbidities, caregivers can become powerful allies in the battle against chronic pain. Through their dedication and informed care, they have the potential to significantly enhance the quality of life for seniors, alleviating their suffering and restoring a sense of comfort and dignity in their golden years



bottom of page