Key messages

  • Older people can be under-treated for pain because of misconceptions about ageing and pain.
  • Common causes of pain in older people include arthritis, disease, infections and injuries.
  • Pain can impact on an older person’s quality of life and health in many ways.

Almost 46 per cent of hospital patients aged 80 years or older report experiencing pain and almost 13 per cent of those are not satisfied with the pain control provided1.

Older people can be under-treated for pain because of misconceptions about ageing and pain.

Some older people are less likely to report pain as they think it is a natural part of ageing, they don’t want to be a nuisance to staff, or they worry that pain signals disease progression which could mean more medications with undesirable side effects, diagnostic tests and loss of independence2.

Common causes of pain in older people

Common causes of pain in older people include:

  • arthritis (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis)
  • fibromyalgia (a condition characterised by widespread pain and other symptoms)
  • cancer
  • circulatory problems
  • bowel disease
  • urinary tract infections
  • pressure injuries
  • old injuries
  • infections.

Impacts of pain on older people

Pain can have a negative impact on an older person’s quality of life, contributing to:

  • impaired mobility or immobility and associated muscle wastage
  • depression and anxiety
  • social isolation
  • financial distress
  • sleep disturbances
  • reduced participation in everyday activities
  • confusion and delirium
  • fatigue
  • delayed healing and recovery
  • pulmonary complications
  • increased mortality.

Persistent pain in older people can also have a negative impact on their:

  • gait
  • physical condition and muscle strength
  • risk of falls
  • cognitive function and mood
  • nutrition
  • ability to participate in rehabilitation activities.

1 Desbiens, N., et al., Pain in the oldest-old during hospitalization and up to one year later. Journal of American Geratrics Soceity, 1997. 45: p. 1167-1172.

2 Herr, K. and L. Garand, Assessment and measurement of pain in older adults. Clinics in geriatric medicine, 2001. 17(3).