Why Are So Many Seniors in Chronic Pain?

seniors chronic pain

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Chronic pain affects about 20 percent of adults in the United States, with a large portion being over 65 years old. Unfortunately, pain is often undertreated and possibly even underreported among older adults. Instead, it is commonly written off as a normal part of aging. But pain should not be accepted when it affects a person’s day-to-day life, regardless of age. 

Seniors and Pain

The majority of elderly adults suffer from high-impact chronic pain. High impact chronic pain significantly affects a person’s life and work abilities. In addition to being associated with an increased risk for depression, high-impact chronic pain can also cause a person to be less physically active. Refraining from exercise can lead to the deconditioning of muscles and overall atrophy and increase the risk of mortality.

Dementia is a group of conditions that impair brain functions, such as memory, and it is common among the senior population. In fact, shocking one in three seniors dies with dementia. Chronic pain has been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. 

What Makes Seniors More Susceptible to Pain?

Pain sensitivity and pain duration often increase with age. One reason this occurs has to do with the physiological changes that occur. Over time, neurotransmitters, the molecules used by the nervous system to transmit messages, decrease, along with the number of neurons that alert a person about potentially damaging stimuli. These factors, combined with a reduced response to pain medications, can increase pain perception.

Homeostenosis, or the concept that diminishing physiologic reserves are available to maintain homeostasis in the body, also occurs with age. This process leads to decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, and reduced muscle mass. In addition to creating health risks, these changes can also increase the risk of falling, which can be particularly devastating to seniors.

Musculoskeletal disorders affecting the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, and cartilage are the most common cause of chronic pain among the older population, affecting at least one in four older adults.

Osteoarthritis accounts for most musculoskeletal joint pain, particularly in the hands, knees, and hips. Also referred to as “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis is one of the most painful musculoskeletal disorders, along with low back pain, fibromyalgia, chronic shoulder pain, knee pain, myofascial pain syndrome, and previous fracture sites.

How Pain Medications Affect Seniors

Opioids are often prescribed to manage chronic pain. Unfortunately, opioid use, especially when taken long-term, can have various side effects, including addiction and accidental overdose. In addition, the adverse effects of opioids are exacerbated among the senior population, as older bodies do not tolerate these medications as well as younger adults. Seniors taking opioids are also more likely to experience confusion and sedation, which can increase the risk of falls.

Furthermore, older adults are more likely to be prescribed more than one medication, increasing the risk of undesirable side effects.

Addressing Pain in the Senior Community

Chronic pain can impact all aspects of a person’s life, including physical and mental functioning, mood, and the ability to work and participate in enjoyable activities. Unfortunately, treating pain in seniors can pose many unique challenges, and many of the currently available options come with harmful side effects. By focusing on non-addictive pain management solutions, Vivera can better address the needs of those suffering from pain.

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