Living with Chronic Pain: Coping Mechanisms for Seniors
As you age, pain seems to become an ever more frequent fact of life. Some of the everyday aches will start to feel run of the mill – you can get used to those. But for some seniors, the pain turns in something more.
Around 75-85% of seniors living in assisted living facilities and nursing homes deal with chronic pain. These seniors continually suffer and often have difficulty finding ways to cope with the pain that comes to define their days.
What is Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain isn’t defined by its severity, but rather its persistence. The pain of an injury or illness will typically pass once you heal. Chronic pain stays with you. As it’s often caused by illnesses or ailments that have no cure, seniors must face the hopelessness of knowing there’s no end in sight on top of the physical pain itself.
Common Causes of Chronic Pain in Seniors
Chronic pain isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to seniors, but incidences of it increase with age, largely because seniors are at a higher risk of many of the illnesses that commonly cause chronic pain.
Chronic pain can be a symptom of any number of diseases, illnesses, and injuries. It’s entirely possible for a senior to be diagnosed with one of the following and not experience chronic pain, but if you experience one of these and your pain lasts beyond what your doctor deems the normal healing period, then you should likely consider seeking treatment for chronic pain:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Neurological Disease
- Spinal injury
- Shoulder tendonitis
- Nerve damage
Most of the causes on that list can occur at any age, but not only are seniors at a higher risk for most of them, but treating chronic pain becomes more complicated for seniors. Between a weaker liver and a higher ratio of body fat to water and muscle mass, seniors are more likely to have a greater sensitivity to drugs and experience negative side effects.
The combination of more pain and fewer treatment options leaves many seniors feeling stuck and hopeless.
The Consequences of Not Managing Your Chronic Pain
The main consequence of not taking steps to manage your chronic pain is obvious and should be bad enough for most seniors: you have to live with the pain. Every day. Nobody wants that!
Beyond that dire reality, the negative effects of chronic pain can go far beyond the pain itself. Many people with chronic pain suffer from depression, a disease seniors are already prone to. If moving is painful, seniors are more likely to avoid going out, increasing their risk of social isolation and loneliness – factors also known to cause depression, which in turn then makes you even less likely to leave the house. As if all that wasn’t already enough, chronic pain also often causes anxiety disorders in patients, which can cause a host of other health issues including digestive problems and heart disease (which, of course, can be a cause of chronic pain).
So here we have a long list of health and emotional problems that all have an unfortunate tendency to feed on each other and make the other health and emotional problems on the list worse. Don’t get stuck in the chronic pain cycle yourself, and don’t just watch on the sidelines if you see a loved one start to get stuck.
Techniques for Managing the Pain
Sometimes seniors are uncomfortable speaking up. Maybe you don’t want to inconvenience loved ones who are already doing a lot of work on your behalf. Maybe you’re embarrassed to admit that you’re in pain. If you don’t start working to manage your pain it will get worse. But you have options.
1. Talk your doctor – and be insistent.
Your doctor won’t know how to help you unless you tell them exactly how you’re feeling. If you feel they’re not taking your pain seriously enough, be very clear with them about how intense it is and how much it’s influencing your life.
They’ll know the best treatments to try to start. Their first recommendation may not work for you, or you may find you’ve traded the pain for side effects almost as unpleasant, but if you continue to work with your doctor, they should be able to help you better understand your options and continue in a treatment plan that may eventually lead to something that works.
2. Ask for help.
Not just from your doctor, from everyone in your life. Don’t suffer in silence. If cooking meals requires movement that’s painful, ask people to help you with your meals. If you’re starting to feel social isolation or depression take hold, ask your family and loved ones to come by more often and help you come up with reasons to get out of the house more. A solid support system won’t do away with the underlying cause of the pain, but it can help you avoid some of those emotional issues that make it worse.
Meditation has been shown to help alleviate physical pain. As more and more research shows the relationship between emotional issues and physical ones, perhaps it’s no surprise that devoting time each day to an activity that’s peaceful and calming can help ease the worst of your physical symptoms.
4. Get out of the house.
Make goals to be social and stick to them. Join a weekly bridge group, start volunteering, or get more involved with your church. Whatever activity you know you’ll do and enjoy, make it a regular part of your life.
Bonus points for any activity that ensures you’ll see people regularly. When you know there are friends who will miss you if you stay home, you’ll have that much more incentive to get out no matter how bad the pain feels at that moment.
When you’re in physical pain, exercise is probably the furthest thing from your mind. But it helps. It releases endorphins that make you feel good. It keeps you healthy so you’re less at risk of encountering other health problems that bring on more pain.
If you’re worried about making your particular injury or illness worse with the strain of exercise, talk to your doctor or a personal trainer about the best types of exercise to pursue that will help rather than hurt.
6. Talk to a therapist.
It’s easy to let the pain take over your life if you don’t seek out the help needed to keep that from happening. Therapists can offer both a friendly ear to listen to all the complaints you don’t want to offload on your loved ones, and provide advice and techniques for managing the emotional side of dealing with chronic pain more effectively.
7. Find a community.
A church group or bridge club can help, but also consider checking out support groups. The people who love you may try their best to be sympathetic, but they’ll never really understand what living with chronic pain every day is like. A support group of other people who are also suffering will, and they’ll likely be able to shed some light on coping techniques that have worked for them so you can all learn from each other.
Acupuncture has been proven to help with many of the diseases that cause chronic pain, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, and headaches. If prescription medications aren’t working, or if you’re weary of trying them due to the side effects, acupuncture can be an appealing alternative, and one covered by many health insurance plans.
You don’t have to just accept chronic pain as a normal part of life and you shouldn’t try to, for all the reasons already explained. None of these coping mechanisms is 100% guaranteed to work, but making an effort to continue living your life and to stay hopeful will definitely lead to an improved quality of life, even if the pain persists in some form. And if not, you’ll know you’ve found that solution that keeps the chronic pain at bay.