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Chronic Pain Steals Elderly Quality of Life While Alternative Treatments Ignored

Harold Mandel's picture
A man in pain

Life is miserable everyday for many older Americans because of pain. Pain is a widely underestimated cause of increased suffering and premature deaths. The pain itself immobilizes people and can be associated with serious emotional problems such as anxiety and depression. And many pain sufferers end up addicted to pain medications which can cost them their lives. Therefore alternative treatments for pain are desirable.

Pain is a growing phenomenon in older Americans

Pain is a growing phenomenon among older Americans, as covered in an article in the journal Pain. It has been estimated that a large percent of the community dwelling older US adult population is suffering from pain which is bothersome. This pain is often associated with a significant reduction in physical function. Researchers found that half of the older adult population of the US in 2011 reported they were suffering from bothersome pain which was strongly associated with decreased physical function.

Pain is very hard to define and describe due to the fact that the perception of pain and tolerance for pain differ greatly from person to person, according to the Stanford School of Medicine Pain Management Center. Basically, pain is the manner in which your brain interprets information about a particular type of sensation which your body is experiencing. There are signals dealing with this painful sensation which are sent to your brain via nerve pathways. There are a myriad of outside factors which determine the way your brain interprets these signals as pain. Some of these factors can be controlled by special techniques.

In acute pain situations the suffering is only for a short duration. We see acute pain with injuries, surgery or illness. With chronic pain there is a long term condition. There are various types of chronic pain which include:

1: Back and neck pain

2: Headaches

3: Neuropathic pain, or nerve injury pain

4: Musculoskeletal pain

5: Pain related to illness

The treatment plans for acute and chronic pain generally differ greatly. Chronic pain is generally associated with a widespread disease process, and the specific cause may be hard to define. If the specific factor which is causing the pain is identified, we may be able to treat it so that the pain no longer occurs. Many patients suffering from cancer and other chronic illnesses can not have the specific factor causing the pain eradicated. In these cases it may be possible to reduce the pain with a combination of medical, psychological and rehabilitation interventions. Nevertheless, there are concerns that patients with chronic pain are undertreated, as written about by EmaxHealth reporter Deborah Mitchell.

Opioid medicines are used to relieve pain

The British Pain Society writes about problems associated with the use of opioid medicines to relieve pain. The opioid class of medicines either come from the opium poppy or they are chemically related to drugs which are made from opium. Opioids are often used to treat pain.

The weak opioids include:

1: Codeine

2: Dihydrocodeine

3: Tramadol

Weak opioids are sometimes combined with paracetamol to make them work better for persistant pain. These drug combinations include:

1: Codeine and paracetamol (co-codamol)

2: Tramadol and paracetamol (tramacet)

Opioid drugs which are even stronger include:

1: Morphine

2: Oxycodone

3: Methadone

4: Fentanyl

5: Buprenorphine

6: Diamorphine (medicinal heroin)

Initial side effects from opioids, which generally only last a few days, include:

1: Feeling dizzy

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2: Feeling sick (nausea)

3: Being sick (vomiting)

4: Feeling sleepy

5: Feeling confused

Problems associated with taking opioids for a long time include:

1: Constipation

2: Itching

3: Weight gain

4: Lack of sex drive

5: Difficulty breathing at night

6: Reduced fertility

7: Irregular periods

8: Erectile dysfunction in men

9: Reduced ability to fight infection

10: Increased levels of pain

Tolerance, withdrawal and addiction can occur with opioids

Furthermore, tolerance can develop with opioids, which means they become less effective with time. Dependence can also develop from these drugs, which means you can have withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the drug suddenly, or lower the dose too quickly.

Symptoms of withdrawal include:

1: Tiredness

2: Sweating

3: A runny nose

4: Stomach cramps

5: Diarrhoea

6: Aching muscles

Addiction to opioids, although rare, is also possible. People who are addicted to these drugs
crave the drug and continue to take the drugs even when they have a negative effect on their
physical or mental health. Clearly, there is an urgent need to stress alternative treatments for pain.
I have reported on prescription opioid analgesics being viewed as depressants and killers in a separate article for EmaxHealth.

Bothersome pain afflicts half of older Americans, as reported in the Dec. 2, 2013 edition of Elsevier via Alpha Galileo. These findings highlight the need for public health action to deal with the problem of pain and disability in elderly people. In the past month more than 50 percent of older adults in the United States, or an estimated 18.7 million people, have experienced bothersome pain to a degree which has impaired their physical functioning.

Pain is a major reason older people slow down

Lead investigator Kushang V. Patel, PhD, has said, “Pain is common in older adults and one of the major reasons why we start slowing down as we age.” The researchers observed that most older adults with pain reported having pain in multiple locations in their body, such as in their back, hips, and knees. This pain generally had a strong association with decreased physical capacity. Many older adults with pain had weaker muscle strength, slower speed of walking, and poorer overall function than those people not suffering from pain.

Patel concluded, “Considering that pain is often poorly managed in the geriatric population, our findings underscore the need for public health action, including additional epidemiologic research and the development and translation of interventions aimed at improving pain and function in older adults.” As the population across the US and worldwide grows older this problem becomes more serious. The burden of pain undermining the daily quality of life of many older people should be addressed.

It has been my observation that pain is really a widespread problem among older adults. The decreased physical functioning of elderly people suffering from pain makes this situation even more difficult for these people and people who may be helping to care for them. There are always deep concerns about the potential for serious side effects, or even addiction and premature death, from taking opioids for pain. Therefore there is an interest in natural interventions as a complement for pain relief.

Good alternative treatments for pain include herbs such as capsaicin and ginger. Professional massage is also highly valued for pain relief. In view of the growing problem of pain in elderly people and concerns about side effects from drug treatment for this condition, I suggest including investigations into effective natural remedies for pain with initiatives to deal with this problem.