Phyllis loves playing with her grandchildren, working in the garden, and going to bingo games twice a week. But, at age 76, the constant knee pain she feels from osteoarthritis  (a joint disease) is taking a toll. It keeps her awake at night  and stops her from doing activities she enjoys. The pain’s getting to be too much to handle, making Phyllis feel depressed, but she doesn’t know what she can do about it.
You’ve probably been in pain at one time or another. Maybe you’ve had a headache or bruise—pain that doesn’t last too long. But, many older people have ongoing pain from health problems like arthritis, cancer , diabetes , or shingles . They may even have many different kinds of pain.
Pain can be your body’s way of warning you that something is wrong. Always tell the doctor  where you hurt and exactly how it feels.
There are two kinds of pain. Acute pain begins suddenly, lasts for a short time, and goes away as your body heals. You might feel acute pain after surgery or if you have a broken bone, infected tooth , or kidney stone.
Pain that lasts for several months or years is called chronic (or persistent) pain. This pain often affects older people. Examples include rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and sciatica. In some cases, chronic pain follows after acute pain from an injury or other health issue has gone away, like postherpetic neuralgia after shingles.
Living with any type of pain can be very hard. It can cause many other problems. For instance, pain can:
Many people have a hard time describing pain. Think about these questions when you explain how the pain feels:
Your doctor or nurse may ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you can imagine. Or, your doctor may ask if the pain is mild, moderate, or severe. Some doctors or nurses have pictures of faces that show different expressions of pain. You point to the face that shows how you feel.
Everyone reacts to pain differently. Many older people have been told not to talk about their aches and pains. Some people feel they should be brave and not complain when they hurt. Other people are quick to report pain and ask for help.
Worrying about pain is a common problem. This worry can make you afraid to stay active, and it can separate you from your friends and family. Working with your doctor, you can find ways to continue to take part in physical  and social activities  despite being in pain.
Some people put off going to the doctor because they think pain is just part of aging and nothing can help. This is not true! It is important to see a doctor if you have a new pain. Finding a way to manage your pain is often easier if it is addressed early.
Treating, or managing, chronic pain is important. The good news is that there are ways to care for pain. Some treatments involve medications, and some do not. Your doctor may make a treatment plan that is specific for your needs.
Most treatment plans do not just focus on reducing pain. They also include ways to support daily function while living with pain.
Pain doesn’t always go away overnight. Talk with your doctor about how long it may take before you feel better. Often, you have to stick with a treatment plan before you get relief. It’s important to stay on a schedule. Sometimes this is called “staying ahead” or “keeping on top” of your pain. As your pain lessens, you can likely become more active and will see your mood lift and sleep improve.
Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following pain medications:
As people age, they are at risk for developing more serious side effects from medication . It’s important to take exactly the amount of pain medicine your doctor prescribes.
Mixing any pain medication with alcohol or other drugs, such as tranquilizers, can be dangerous. Make sure your doctor knows all the medicines you take , including over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements, as well as the amount of alcohol you drink.
Remember: If you think the medicine is not working, don’t change it on your own. Talk to your doctor or nurse. You might say, “I’ve been taking the medication as you directed, but it still hurts too much to play with my grandchildren. Is there anything else I can try?”
In addition to drugs, there are a variety of complementary and alternative approaches that may provide relief. Talk to your doctor about these treatments. It may take both medicine and other treatments to feel better.
There are things you can do yourself that might help you feel better. Try to:
Some people with cancer are more afraid of the pain than of the cancer. But, most pain from cancer or cancer treatments can be controlled. As with all pain, it’s best to start managing cancer pain early. It might take a while to find the best approach. Talk with your doctor so the pain management plan can be corrected to work for you.
One special concern in managing cancer pain is “breakthrough pain.” This is a pain that comes on quickly and can take you by surprise. It can be very upsetting. After one attack, many people worry it will happen again. This is another reason why it is so important to talk with your doctor about having a pain management plan in place.
People who have Alzheimer’s disease  may not be able to tell you  when they’re in pain. When you’re caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease , watch for clues. A person’s face may show signs of being in pain or feeling ill. You may also notice sudden changes in behavior such as increased yelling, striking out , or spending more time in bed. It’s important to find out if there is something wrong. If you’re not sure what to do, call the doctor for help.
Not everyone who is dying  is in pain. But if a person has pain at the end of life , there are ways to help. Experts often believe it’s best to focus on making the person comfortable, without worrying about possible addiction or drug dependence.
Speak to a palliative care or pain management specialist if you are concerned about pain for yourself or a loved one. These specialists are trained to manage pain and other symptoms for people with serious illnesses.
For more information on health and aging, contact:
Visit www.nihseniorhealth.gov , a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health and wellness information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to make the type larger.
National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services