Common Types of Pain in the Elderly

Apr 8, 2016

Common Types of Pain in the Elderly

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Across the United States, millions of Americans silently endure debilitating pain from day to day with much of this population being elderly citizens. In recent studies, over 76 million Americans reported experiencing some sort of pain associated with aging. 

The most common types of pain experienced are the hip and back pain. Approximately 15 percent of Americans over the age of 65 report experiencing pain from hip related issues. A staggering statistic of two-thirds of the American population has reported back pain. However, 37 percent of those people indicated no help was sought.

Because there is a prominent misconception pain associated with aging is normal, many seniors dismiss persistent hip and back pain. In reality, ignoring consistent pain especially in the back, neck and hip areas can result in a major disruption of a person’s quality of life.

Common Types of Pain in the Elderly

Lower Back Pain

Although all ages of adults will most likely encounter back pain at one point or another, those over the age of 60 are more inclined to develop back pain due to a range of factors. Causes of lower back pain can be revealed through understanding the range of different symptoms.

One of the most common causes of lower back pain is arthritis. Arthritis, especially osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause pronounced stiffness in the lower back during morning and evening hours, localized pain, pain aggravated by prolonged activity, sleep interruption from pain and loss of flexibility at the waist. Arthritis is a degenerative disease gradually developing over time by the breakdown of cartilage between joints resulting in painful bone on bone contact. Arthritis symptoms tend to begin as sporadic discomfort then proceed to emerge as a serious condition.

Leg Pain

Pain manifesting as leg pain while standing or walking can indicate degeneration of the spinal joints. Additional symptoms of spinal joint degeneration include decreased walking endurance, immediate pain relief after resting, a variation of pain levels from none to severe, numbness or tingling feelings traveling from the lower back through the buttocks into the legs. Many times these types of symptoms indicate nerve damage located in the spine. Standing and walking are triggers for the pain due to pressure from activity being placed on the ends of the damaged nerves.

Spinal pain

Unlike arthritis or the degeneration of the spinal nerves, back pain can be overt as sudden onset pain indicating a spinal compression fracture may be at fault. Those suffering from a spinal compression fracture commonly experience sudden onset pain, pain relief from lying down, limited spinal flexibility, and worsening of pain while walking or standing. Although the name “spinal compression fracture” may imply a serious accident occurred for one to develop a fracture; however, a spinal compression fracture is one of the most frequent causes of sudden onset pain in people over the age of 50. Many times those who experience spinal compression fractures also manage a type of spinal arthritis, which weakens the spinal joints overall. Arthritis occurring in the spine increases one’s risks for spinal fractures caused by minor catalysts, such as small pressure resulting from a sneeze.

Hip Pain

Because the function of the back and the function of the hip are closely dependent, back pain can also be an indicator of medical issues related to the hip and vice versa. Similar to back pain, hip-related pain is more commonly caused by inflammation due to another medical condition such as arthritis or strain of the hip muscles. Symptoms of hip discomfort are frequently reported as a pain felt in the thighs, hip joint, the groin, the buttocks, or pain traveling through the back and radiating to the hip.

Being a degenerative disease, arthritis can affect any cartilage in the body, most commonly impacting the hips, knees, and back. Almost identical to arthritis in the back, arthritis occurring in the hip causes stiffness, dull joint pain localized in the hips, and swollen hip joints with decreased range of motion. Discomfort caused by arthritis typically begins slowly with mild pain then develops into disruptive pain.

Bursitis

Similarly to arthritis, hip discomfort may be a result of bursitis. Bursa is a fluid-filled sac located inside the hip joint designed to limit friction by cushioning the bones and tendons. Bursitis occurs when one or more of the bursa is inflamed causing pain and can affect any bursa located on all major body joints. According to recent studies, 10 to 20 percent of those experiencing hip discomfort are experiencing bursitis. 

Commonly, pain from this type of condition is localized on the inside and on the outside areas of the hip. However, discomfort can also travel through the thigh ending in the knee resulting in interruption of sleep, interruption of the ability to lie down, and increased pain from daily activities.

Nerve Pain

A discomfort felt in the hip can also indicate another medical issue originating in another part of the body. Typically, inflammation of nerve endings in the back can result in pain radiating in the hip and leg. The inflammation of the sciatic nerve located at the bottom of the spine is one of the most frequent causes of hip pain.

Additional symptoms indicating irritation of the sciatic nerve includes weakness or tingling in the leg, increased pain from bending at the waist, increased pain from coughing, sitting, sneezing or other minor pressure. Discomfort developed by the inflammation of the sciatic nerve can manifest in sudden onset pain and can continue for multiple weeks. Because further serious medical conditions can emerge, the identification and management of sciatic nerve issues are important. Resulting from age, spinal joints are more susceptible to injury caused by minor pressure. Weakened disks from sciatic nerve pain and aging can become herniated disks.

Those who suffer from painful inflammation in the back and hip due to muscle strain can seek safe over the counter anti-inflammatory medication, which typically relieves discomfort quickly and effectively. Arthritis based pain can be resolved through low impact exercising designed to reduce pain and increase joint range of motion.

Unfortunately, if the pain in the back and hip is resulting from nerve damages or pressure on spinal nerves, consultation with a medical physician is strongly recommended. Although damaged spinal nerves can be serious, surgery is not always required. A range of medical and non-medical treatments is available and should be discussed with a trusted medical doctor.

In all scenarios where hip and back discomfort occur, the appropriate medications, rest, heat and ice are the first go-to solutions for immediate relief. If the pain persists and exceeds normal daily levels of discomfort, seek medical advice as soon as possible to prevent small issues from developing into serious conditions.

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There are some unpleasant side effects of opioids that you will want to discuss with your senior’s physician or pain management specialist. They are:

  • Constipation: The elderly and those with conditions affecting the gastrointestinal tract are most likely to suffer from constipation when taking opioids.
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  • Respiratory depression: This is a rare symptom, though will be present in an opioid overdose. If you or your senior experience shallow slow breathing when taking opioids, talk to your doctor to determine if medication changes should be made, or if it is stemming from another underlying condition.

Learn more about chronic pain management for seniors by reading about how to treat chronic pain in the elderly.

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So I’m not one to try pain medicines unless it’s a last resort - does acupuncture work for seniors?

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