What Research Tells Us About Aging and Pain

Posted on: Jul 6, 2017

Research shows older adults experience pain more often than younger adults. A study by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that nearly 50 million American adults have significant chronic pain or severe pain. Up to 40% of these people do not receive adequate treatment for their pain.
The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, in its recent article What We Know About Aging and Pain summarizes the research that addresses how older adults can best manage their pain. A systematic review of 92 studies explored the barriers to pain management for older adults and found:

  • Older adults do not absorb medicines as well as younger people and are less able to flush toxins out of their bodies.
  • Patients with sensory orcognitive impairments may not be able to adequately describe their pain to caregivers.
  • Doctors often worry about the long-term effects of taking pain medicines, especially if the patient is taking medicines for other chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
  • Patients often view pain treatments as “weakness” and view tolerating pain as a sign of strength in older age.
  • Patients are less likely to seek pain treatment if they don’t have strong, trusting relationships with their doctors.

Evidence-based approaches to managing pain in older adults include medicines, non-pharmaceutical interventions, and multi-faceted approaches. The treatments that work best are:

  • Pain medications: Over-the-counter Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a good choice for pain treatment because it has the smallest risk of side effects. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, Aspirin, Advil, Motrin) are recommended for use for only short periods due to the increased risks of heart problems, kidney problems, and stomach ulcers.
  • Non-pharmaceutical interventions: The review found a wide range of therapies and physical activities to be effective at relieving pain in older adults. These treatments included cognitive-behavioral therapy, massage, acupuncture, tai chi, and yoga.
  • Multi-faceted approaches: A central finding of the review is that doctors must be proactive in listening to patients’ evaluations of their pain levels. It’s important to find a health care provider who will respond if you report an increase in pain and offer a multi-faceted approach to pain management.

The research tells us that older people experience more pain than younger people, but that pain is treatable. A multi-faceted approach utilizing a broad range of treatments works best for managing pain in older adults.
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