Pain in the absence of disease is not a normal symptom of aging, but is still a daily experience for many older adults, said Dr. Timothy McCurry, medical director of Rainbow Hospice and Palliative Care, at the 15th Annual Aging Well Conference in Evanston, IL.
“As we get older we get more diseases, so we have come to associate aging with pain,” McCurry told a room of seniors gathered at the Three Crowns Park retirement community. “Chronic pain is constant in a lot of people. The data shows 100 million people in the U.S. with such pain.” He suspects arthritis is the most common chronic disease.
Because chronic pain is episodic, clinicians should mind how patients’ pain changes throughout a week and over time. For example, patients suffering from arthritis can exercise to help reduce symptoms. McCurry recommends aerobic and strength regimens. “When you become weak, your muscles become vulnerable to injury- falling and breaking a hip.”
But exercise only does so much, as medication usually accompanies chronic pain. “Sometimes you have to make changes and take medications that are a little stronger, a little strange, but help you be able to do stuff,” said McCurry. He knows many choose not to take medications, and they subsequently become “used to pain.” These seniors have a higher risk of falling and a lesser quality of life.
Sometimes, those suffering from chronic pain hide their pain from clinicians, family and friends. Over time, these patients learn how to better mask their discomfort, unlike patients suffering from sudden and intense acute pain.
“We can help people in severe pain,” said McCurry, noting morphine and other opiodic drugs common throughout hospice. “No chronic patient should be in pain.” But some patients shy away from these treatments out of fear of addiction or social judgements. “Although these pain medications can help you function, these myths are very strong and very scary. But at the same time, the alternative is worse.”
Even though hospice care helps many manage pain, findings show most seniors utilize such care too late.