Pain is a constant companion for many older adults. Doctors often will find no obvious cause or simple treatment, which can lead to uncomfortable discussions. Pills may mask the hurt and not resolve it. Still, the suffering is as real as any discomfort from injury or decay. Medical practitioners have many ways to manage pain even without warning signs of trauma or disease.
Moments of joint pain can keep you from leading an active life. Treating parts of the body gingerly to avoid a flare-up can make the sting worse, ratcheting up tension or letting muscles fall into disuse. Constant pain is distracting and disheartening; relationships suffer when anger and depression sets in.
How Do You Describe Your Pain?
If you have not discussed pain relief in a medical visit, make an appointment. Your doctor should be able to give you insight into your agony. Aches that come with age are only one factor. Cartilage in joints deteriorates, and discs in your spine can compress. When that occurs, your nerves feel the impact as you move. But other conditions may be at fault as well, so your doctor will want to investigate non-age-related causes.
Pain can be a challenge to describe. It’s important to articulate what you’re feeling and any causes you may suspect. Writing down the details before the doctor’s visit—can help them find these causes:
- Where does it hurt? Does it stay in one place or radiate?
- Do you get aches, cramps, heat, twinges or throbs?
- Do you also feel tired or sick?
- Are body areas tender or sore?
Pay attention to when pain happens and what you’re doing at the time. What activity affects the discomfort, and what have you tried so far to get it under control? Has anything provided relief?
To get to the heart of your pain, the care team will also ask what’s going on around you. Avoiding pain may have stopped you from being active, and with less blood circulating and muscles out of condition your pain can grow even more intense. Nighttime pain can disrupt sleep, delay healing and make you more sensitive to pain. Weight problems may strain your knees and back.
Pain is a mental experience too. Chronic pain and depression activate the brain in similar ways. The brain, spine and nerves can send out pain signals even without an underlying physical cause. Any issue with emotional stress behind it—from loneliness, grief or sadness to money or family problems—also may affect how pain strikes you.
Mind and Body Approaches to Pain Management
With all the potential causes, doctors may consider drugs a last resort. Deep discussion shows they’re serious about your pain and not settling for a quick fix. Here are some common steps to pain relief without drugs:
- Breathing and mindfulness exercises lower the pain alarm levels in the brain. Even activities that improve your attitude can make distress easier to tolerate. Slow breathing allows your body to relax and take in more oxygen. Mindfulness is a way of concentrating on one thing without distraction. As a start, try breathing in through your nose while counting to 4, holding your breath to a count of 7 and breathing out slowly through your mouth to a count of 8.
- Exercise habits or physical therapy restores your range of motion and keeps arthritis from settling in or worsening. Cardio exercises like walking, running and swimming can increase mobility and lower pain levels. Stretching relieves tension and stiffness.
- Diet improvements provide missing nutrients and manage weight. For instance, rheumatoid arthritis sufferers often have low levels of Vitamin C, while Vitamin D deficiencies are linked to several causes of chronic pain.
- Improving sleep help interrupt a cycle of pain, worry and insomnia. Calm down an active nervous system with a quiet, relaxing routine before bedtime. Hide the clock and stop worrying about sleeplessness.
- Chiropractic and massage treatments improve joint function, reduce swelling and reduce pain. Heat pads can bring blood to aching muscles, while ice massage may bring down swelling or improve range of motion.
When over-the-counter drugs are not adequate for mild or moderate pain, prescription medications can avoid side effects such as upset stomach. Antidepressants and anti-seizure medicines can help some forms of chronic pain. Opioids are often a last resort, with risks that require frequent follow-up visits. Whatever your doctor prescribes, watch for drug complications and side effects. Surgery is another option to relieve nerve pressure or complications of nerve damage.
Living with pain is a reality for many older people with arthritis or pain-inducing chronic disease. A realistic goal for pain relief may be to observe the triggers and keep positive, limber and relaxed, using both mind and body in pain management. Your primary care physician or a pain management specialist can create a plan to ease the discomfort and, if possible, address the underlying causes.