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Managing Chronic Pain in Older Adults

Managing pain at any age can be quite the pain. Although common in aging adults, persistent pain lasting more than three months can have a profound impact on daily activities and overall quality of life. In recognition of Pain Awareness month, we’re focusing on chronic pain, its possible causes, and how Presidio Home Care Aides can deliver the support your senior loved one needs to create a pain-free path.

What is Pain?

Have you felt discomfort or pain when injured or ill? According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, pain originates in receptor nerve cells found beneath the skin and in organs throughout the body. These receptor cells send messages along nerve pathways to the spinal cord, which carries them to the brain. The type of pain will depend on the severity of the health issue, but there are two known types of pain: acute and chronic.

  • Acute pain can be something as minor as a headache or a small cut. Acute means “new,” where the duration of pain is considerably shorter, and likely treated with a combination of ice, heat or over-the-counter medication.

  • Chronic pain on the other hand, is more persistent, typically lasting more than three months. Common sources of chronic pain include musculoskeletal disorders that affect the muscles, bones or joints, cancer pain (near a tumor), or neurogenic pain (damage to parts of the nervous system). With chronic pain, an older adult can experience pain episodically or continuously.

Chronic pain is present in 25-50% of older adults, and prevalence increases with age. The prevalence among nursing home patients may be as high as 45-80%.

How to Recognize and Assess Pain

Although experiencing occasional pain is a natural part of aging, prolonged discomfort can negatively impact a loved one’s mental health, mobility, sleep habits, and physical well-being. Pain is subjective and could be a symptom of another condition, which is why it’s important to talk to a doctor immediately. To determine the cause of their prolonged discomfort, a provider may want to know:

  • If your loved one is experiencing any aching, burning, shooting, squeezing, stiffness, stinging or throbbing? Is there anything that makes it worse or better?

  • Where is the pain located?

  • Have they experienced pain for more than three months?

  • How often does it occur?

  • On a scale of 1-10, how intense is the pain?

  • Have they had any illnesses or surgeries recently?

  • How does it affect your loved one’s daily life?

Depending on the type of pain and location, a provider may want to perform a physical exam and order additional tests, including blood, urine, spinal fluid, imaging (X-ray or MRI), reflex and balance tests, to name a few. For nerve-related conditions, a nerve conduction study -- performed alongside an electromyography (EMG) -- stimulates specific nerves and records their ability to send the impulse to the muscle. The purpose of the study is to find and evaluate any nerve damage as well as any abnormal sensations like numbness or tingling.

Ways to Manage Pain

Living with chronic pain can be tricky but not impossible. There are a number of different strategies a care team can implement to bring relief and ultimately improve your family member’s quality of life. Depending on the type of pain and where it is located, here are some ways to manage chronic pain.

  • Medication: Certain medications can be helpful for someone suffering from chronic pain. However, providers may take special precautions when prescribing pain medications because kidney and liver function declines with age — making it more difficult to filter or break down drugs in the body, respectively. Some common medications include anticonvulsants for nerve pain, corticosteroids, muscle relaxers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen, or antidepressants.

  • Non-prescription pain management: Even though medication is designed to provide short-term benefits, some providers may encourage alternative methods to alleviate persistent pain. These treatments include physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, topical medications and stretching.

  • Exercise: Low-impact physical activities can keep muscles and joints strong and flexible – minimizing inflammation — which could otherwise be a source of pain. Moreover, exercise can also serve as a stress reliever as well as a way for people to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. Some great examples of low-impact activities include yoga, swimming and walking.

  • Diet: A healthy diet can not only boost overall health, but for chronic pain sufferers, eliminating certain foods that cause inflammation might be necessary. For example, red meat, refined carbs, and gluten can trigger an inflammatory response in the body.

  • Stress management. Did you know stress actually increases with chronic pain? Mentally managing pain through different skills and techniques should help your loved one cope more effectively. Research options and interview different counselors to find a good fit.

How Home Care Aides Can Help

Presidio Home Care Aides understand that living with chronic pain poses a lot of challenges. Our Home Care Aides are patient and passionate professionals that can remind your senior loved one to take medications, put together nutritious meals, and motivate them to stay active while working directly with your care team to deliver supportive care that ensures their comfort. Contact Us today to learn more.

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