Aging Doesn’t Have to Mean Living With Pain

Most people assume that as you get older, you will acquire more health problems and, consequently, more pain. While it is true that older people are at greater risk of health issues including chronic pain, there is no reason why you have to be in pain.  Modern medicine has made enormous strides in treating many illnesses like arthritis and heart disease that are common among the elderly. Just as importantly, medical experts are now better able to predict who is at risk for certain health issues and provide preventive therapies.

How Common is Chronic Pain among Seniors?

Chronic pain is very common in the United States, but not every older person is in pain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that two out of five American adults has pain that lasts longer than three months. Among seniors, that figure rises to 50 percent, or up to 84 percent among nursing care facility residents.

However, you should keep in mind that aging itself is not the cause of these pain conditions. Acute and chronic pain are related to physiological conditions.  Pain is always a result of the body malfunctioning; no organism is designed to enter a state of pain due to age. This means that seniors should be perfectly able to live pain-free if they are not suffering from an illness or injury.

The most common causes of chronic pain among the elderly include

  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Neurological illness

Unfortunately, many seniors who struggle with pain symptoms fail to seek out appropriate treatment.  There are many reasons why this is the case including limited financial resources, misconception that pain is natural or cultural inclination to endure pain. 

Untreated pain can lead to many secondary health conditions that can be quite serious in their own right.

  • Impaired sleep
  • Poor mental health
  • Injury due to falls
  • Malnutrition
  • Disability
  • Decreased quality of life

Avoiding Pain Later in Life

There is no reason why you should expect recurring pain in your later years. Although there is no way to totally avoid illness or injury, there are some steps that you can take to minimize your health risks.

  • Maintain a healthy weight—almost every American understands that remaining at an appropriate weight is critical for long-term wellbeing, but you may not know why. Excess weight puts considerable stress on your joints including legs, hips and lower back. It also promotes inflammation which causes a cascade of pain issues. Finally, fatty tissue makes you more sensitive to pain symptoms.
  • Eat well—you should talk to your doctor about what kind of diet you should be on, but, in general, you should eat plenty of dairy to maintain good bone health. You should also include a healthy amount of antioxidants that help fight off inflammation.  Many medical experts recommend a Mediterranean diet for optimal health.
  • Exercise regularly—in addition to a good diet, you need vigorous exercise to keep your body at peak performance. You should discuss with your doctor what kinds of physical activity are most appropriate for you, but you should probably include cardiovascular as well as strength training to help lose weight and firm up key muscle groups.
  • Sleep—most people know that getting enough restful sleep is essential for a successful day, but many fail to realize how important regular sleep is for maintaining good health. Proper sleep is important for repairing bodily damage that occurs daily and expedites the recovery process involving pain conditions.
  • Stay emotionally healthy—many people ignore their emotional wellbeing but this can be a critical oversight. A strong network of friends and social supporters can provide important emotional support that translates into better health.
  • Don’t ignore health issues—a lot of people put off treating many health problems until it is a crisis which is a recipe for long-term pain. Visit your doctor regularly and be open about any issues; early identification of a health problem can head off a chronic condition that could be very expensive and painful down the road.

How Seniors Should Treat Chronic Pain

If you are older and experiencing pain symptoms, don’t ignore it. If the pain is intense or continues for an extended period, you should see your doctor. You don’t have to live with pain at any age.

Your doctor is likely to recommend one or more of the following pain treatment options:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—NSAIDs like aspirin, Tylenol and Aleve are commonly used to treat pain in seniors, but some care should be taken. Although many NSAIDs are available over the counter, they still carry some risks, especially for older people. You should not take NSAIDs if you have kidney, heart or liver problems, and you should always discuss all drugs you are taking with your physician.
  • Opioids—these powerful medications are potentially habit-forming and come with serious side effects like nausea, constipation and drowsiness. You should only take opioids as directed by your doctor.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy—pain is not entirely “in your head,” but there are many ways that your brain can make recurring pain worse. CBT uses a variety of techniques like guided meditation and biofeedback to help mitigate many secondary issues like anxiety and depression that can worsen pain symptoms.
  • Physical therapy—working with a physical therapist can greatly improve your pain condition.  Exercise, in general, is usually good for mitigating pain and improving overall health, but a PT specialist can help provide a personalized exercise program that focuses on problem areas. Additionally, physical therapists can also offer important treatment options like massage, TENS and ultrasound.
  • Acupuncture—acupuncture is the gentle insertion of very fine needles into key areas of the body in order to neutralize pain. Although this technique has been in existence for centuries, only recently has Western medicine begun to embrace it—primarily because of its low risks.
  • Mindful meditation—using techniques like rhythmic breathing, guided imagery and other relaxation exercises, mindfulness helps relieve pain and stress. This self-regulation enables the patient to control their pain response and alleviate symptoms.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.