While it’s a blessing to live a long life, the aging process comes with its share of aches and pains. To add insult to injury, it’s a hit to the ego to admit that the spry, pain-free, and seemingly immortal body you once enjoyed isn’t the same one you have now.
The pains of aging
We don’t like to acknowledge that we need to adapt our body care to our life stage. This becomes a problem when it comes to pain management, particularly if you’re the type to tough it out until your body repairs itself.
The healing process is slower in an aging body, so underestimating pain, delaying treatment, or avoiding care due to pain-related fear may contribute to the development of chronic pain and associated disability.
Chronic pain is associated with increased morbidity and mortality and reduces quality of life. Insufficiently treated pain in older adults can negatively impact physical, cognitive, and social well-being.
But here’s the good news: treating acute pain appropriately may prevent its development into chronic pain, while managing existing chronic pain can improve quality of life and promote a healthy lifespan in the years to come.
Effects of pain
Pain in older adults is associated with
- reduced mobility
- poor balance
- increased fall risk
- general disability
- lower income
When pain overstays its welcome
Acute pain is usually triggered by injury or trauma and serves as a protective mechanism to deter us from further insult. The body’s proinflammatory molecules, called cytokines and chemokines, mediate pain, and this process should resolve once the threat has subsided and the damaged tissues have been repaired.
But when acute pain is poorly managed, a pathological process known as sensitization takes place in the central and peripheral nervous systems. This mechanism is theorized to drive the development of chronic pain. Pain is considered chronic when it has persisted for three months or longer.
The “biopsychosocial model” of care acknowledges the intricate connections between physical, psychological, and social experiences of health. Multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation (MBR) for pain hones in on these connections and is delivered through a collaboration of different health care professionals. This approach to pain management has been shown to provide positive clinical outcomes while being cost effective over time.
Curate your multidisciplinary pain management team by seeking the care of diverse practitioners, such as a naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist, psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and osteopathic manual therapist. These care providers can offer evidence-based pain management treatments.
Evidence-based pain treatments
Acupuncture relieves pain by encouraging the body’s own production of opiates, endorphins, and corticosteroids, and has been shown to reduce chronic low back pain.
Mind-body approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction help reduce chronic low back pain.
Hypnotherapy is effective in reducing chronic pain for some individuals.
Osteopathy is shown to be helpful in some cases of low back pain.
Music therapy is effective in lowering pain for palliative care patients.
Fight inflammation with food. An anti-inflammatory approach to eating is helpful for managing acute and chronic pain by promoting an analgesic effect. Cut back on sugar, processed foods, and trans fats, and opt for a food plan based on whole foods including fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, fish and unprocessed meats, and whole grains.
If your pain originates from the digestive tract or an autoimmune condition, consider testing for sensitivities to gluten and other foods. Ask your naturopathic doctor for testing options and avoid these food sensitivities while healing your gut.
Herb / Supplement Pain points psyllium this type of fiber improves global symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including abdominal pain turmeric supplementation improves pain and function in knee osteoarthritis ginger supplementation relieves migraine, and inhaling its essential oil may help chronic low back pain eucalyptus inhaling essential oil may reduce post-surgical pain rosemary reduces menstrual pain in dysmenorrhea as effectively as medication peppermint oil improves abdominal pain in IBS, and chest pain and difficulty swallowing in esophageal disorders feverfew extract may relieve acute pain and migraine capsaicin topical application may relieve pain from neuropathy, osteoarthritis, and migraine white willow bark may relieve chronic low back and joint pain caffeine pairing caffeine with a painkiller enhances relief of pain, headache, and migraine cherry juice extract regular intake reduces gout flare-ups CBD can help with chronic pain management and opioid addiction glucosamine may help reduce pain in knee osteoarthritis
Easing up is wise
With acute pain, it’s particularly important to rest the painful area to reduce inflammation and allow for healing. Manage chronic pain by interspersing periods of rest throughout activities that aggravate your pain. And if you’re pain free and going about your busy day, remember to rest and stretch every once in a while to avoid fatigue and injury.
Staying active is important
It’s no surprise that exercise improves chronic pain and associated disability. On top of strengthening muscles, improving flexibility, and promoting joint stability, research suggests that exercise also increases the body’s production of pain-relieving molecules known as endocannabinoids.
Of course, when pain interferes with exercise, we have a problem! The type, intensity, and frequency of exercise that’s best for you depends on whether your pain is acute or chronic, as well as on the cause of your pain (for example, a broken bone, sciatica, or neuropathy).
Consult with a physiotherapist or kinesiologist for an individualized exercise treatment program, which has been shown to reduce pain and promote function.
Pain’s link to mental health
Increased perception of pain severity and decreased pain tolerance are associated with depression and anxiety, and prolonged pain has been shown to increase mood dysregulation.
Mind over matter works wonders
We can tap into the mind-body connection and use it to our advantage! Optimism is protective against day-to-day pain-related disruptions and increases goal-directed activity in older adults. Research suggests that older adults can apply cognitive pain control mechanisms to increase the efficacy of pain treatments.
- Aromatherapy may help manage pain.
- Tai chi is useful in chronic low back pain among older adults.
- Pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy benefits pain, stiffness, and physical function in osteoarthritis.
Opioids Rx: Informed consent
The pain-relieving benefit of opioids comes with sizable side effects and risks, which you should discuss with your doctor before treatment.
Side effects and risks
- drowsiness at the wheel
- respiratory depression
- heart failure
- drug tolerance
- increased pain
Discuss with your prescribing physician
- treatment alternatives
- medical history
- duration of use
- interactions with medications
- addiction history
- naloxone prescription for opioid overdose