Everyone experiences pain. As you age, it becomes a more common part of everyday life. But there’s a difference between acute pain, the kind of pain everyone feels at some point – usually brought on by an injury or illness, and the chronic pain that plagues some seniors.
What Is Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain is defined by how long it lasts. If you experience the same type of pain either continuously or intermittently for twelve weeks or more, then it goes into the category of chronic pain. Over 1.5 billion people worldwide are believed to have chronic pain, with 100 million people in the United States affected.
Chronic pain has a number of causes and takes a number of forms in different people, but the one thing it has in common for everyone that has it is that it lasts for a long time and can take a big toll on your life.
The Risks of Chronic Pain
Chronic pain isn’t just bad for its own sake. It can cause a lot of additional problems for seniors. For one thing, if you’re constantly in pain, it can be hard to get out of the house and maintain a social life during retirement. It can influence how well you sleep and have a negative affect on cognitive function and cardiovascular health. And it can potentially lead to social isolation and depression.
The problem is cyclical. Once you have chronic pain, the symptoms cause other problems that make it that much harder to take active steps to manage the chronic pain. For many seniors with chronic pain, it can start to feel hopeless.
What Are Some of the Main Causes of Chronic Pain in Seniors?
Chronic pain has different causes for different people. Some of the most common causes include:
- An initial injury. Sometimes it starts as acute pain caused by an injury. If the injury causes nerve damage, then even after the injury itself heals, the pain can continue on for much longer.
- Fibromyalgia – A condition that affects muscle and soft tissues, fibromyalgia can cause chronic muscle pain.
- Endometriosis – A condition in which the lining that usually grows inside the uterus grows outside of it, causing chronic pain.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome – Like the name sounds, this illness causes the person to feel frequent fatigue, and often includes chronic pain as a side effect.
- Multiple sclerosis – A disease affecting the brain and spinal cord, MS patients often experience chronic pain.
- Arthritis – An incurable condition caused by joint inflammation, many seniors suffer from arthritis, which tends to get worse with age.
- Shingles – While shingles can be treated, for some people the pain continues long after the rash is gone.
- Nerve damage – Your nerves are what communicate the problem you experience that causes pain to your brain, which means when they aren’t working properly it can result in prolonged pain without a clear cause that’s a challenge to treat.
Many types of chronic pain get that classification because they’re so hard to treat. Many of these disorders unfortunately don’t have a cure, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about the pain.
What Seniors Can Do About Chronic Pain
Chronic pain that’s hard to treat or impossible to cure can make people feel hopeless. While you may not be able to eliminate the pain from your life entirely, there are active steps you can take to reduce the pain you experience or grow to live with it so that it doesn’t take over your life.
- Talk to your doctor.
The first step is important (and should be taken before pursuing many of the other items on this list). Before you do anything else, talk to your doctor about what you’re experiencing. Be as specific in describing your symptoms as possible. Find out what they recommend trying.
If you’ve reached the point where the medical options your physician recommends have been tried without success, then talk to them about pursuing some of the other steps on this list.
- Go to therapy.
Therapy won’t make your physical pain go away, but a good therapist can work with you to develop coping techniques that enable you to live with the pain. They can help you manage the stress the pain causes, make sure you don’t let it keep you from enjoying things you care about in life, and help you avoid falling into a depression due to the pain.
- Find exercises you can do.
Your pain or other issues you have may make some forms of exercise unsafe, but talk to your doctor about what options you do have. Exercise doesn’t just help you stay fit and avoid gaining weight, it also lifts your mood, improves cardiovascular health, and can help improve upon many of the things that living with chronic pain makes worse. Don’t let the pain be an excuse to stop exercising altogether; figure out what alternative workouts you still can do.
- Give acupuncture a try.
For some who haven’t tried it, acupuncture can seem intimidating. Having needles stuck into your skin sounds more like it would cause pain than help improve your pain. But the science behind acupuncture is solid and research has shown that it helps people suffering from chronic pain.
- Try meditation.
It may sound hokey if you haven’t tried it, but research has shown meditation to be an effective way of managing chronic pain. You can look into local classes or start with something simple like the Headspace app. When you feel like you’ve tried everything else, you might be surprised at the results that focused meditation can provide.
- Look into support groups.
As much as your loved ones may try to help, they’ll never really understand what you’re going through the same way as someone else suffering with similar pain. A local support group can help you connect with people who will understand the frustrations you’re experiencing and can help you work through them with company and support.
- Turn to loved ones.
The people in your life who love you want to help. Talk to them about what you need to get through this. Maybe it’s help with chores or errands that are harder to complete with the pain. Maybe it’s a ride to the acupuncture clinic. Maybe it’s just a sympathetic ear and someone who takes your pain seriously. Ask for what you need and give your loved ones the chance to deliver. They’re probably feeling frustrated not knowing how to help.
Chronic pain is serious. You can acknowledge that what you’re experiencing is real and that it’s as bad as it feels without falling prey to hopelessness. Work with your doctor to understand what you’re dealing with and figure out what your options are.