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How to Recognize Pain Symptoms in an Elderly Loved One

In honor of Pain Awareness Month this September, we are taking the time to explore how to recognize pain symptoms in an elderly loved one. The U.S. Pain Foundation supports its 2020 Pain Awareness Month campaign, with this year’s theme being #MyPainPlan, which focuses on the importance of an individualized, multimodal, and multidisciplinary approach to pain care. Because everyone experiences pain in a different way, it stands to reasons that each individual’s regimen to manage and treat that pain should be personal, as well. This is no different when it comes to end of life care in Alameda County and elsewhere, where elderly patients in hospice must be taken care of so as to boost their quality of life. Pain management is critical for hospice patients.

But how can you recognize pain symptoms in your elderly loved one? Caring for someone who has a life-threatening illness does require thorough and careful evaluation of their pain and related symptoms. Think of yourself as the eyes and ears of the nurses, caregivers, and doctors who look after your loved one. Because you likely spend the most time with them, you have to relay vital information about their pain and symptoms back to the whole healthcare team on a regular basis. How can you do this in the most efficient and accurate way possible?

Understanding Pain

What is pain, exactly? Well, there are many categories of pain, which can range from acute, stemming from recent onset, to ongoing, chronic pain. It can also be localized or diffuse. On top of that, pain can manifest and generate itself in many ways, with each mechanism leading to varying experiences of pain. When your elderly loved one is able to communicate their pain, it’s easier to record those pain levels and report them back to their healthcare team. This is an ideal situation. However, it doesn’t always work like that. If your loved one can’t communicate their feelings, or even where the pain is coming from, it becomes tougher to not only assess their pain but to report back anything of accuracy. Good news is, it’s still possible. But you have to be aware of the physical signs and symptoms that show what they’re feeling, says Very Well Health.

Severity of Pain

The first step when you want to assess pain is to determine how bad the pain is at any given moment, best done with a numeric scale of 0-10. Ask your elderly loved one to rate their pain based on the following outline:

  • 0: no pain
  • 1 to 3: mild pain
  • 4 to 6: moderate pain
  • 7 to 10: severe pain

 In addition to numbers, sometimes there are faces in varying stages of distress associated with the numbers, called a FACES scale. Everyone has their own acceptable level of pain, and this can vary by individual. One person may say they have no pain, while another may say they have a pain level of 3. Some have higher thresholds for pain than others. If your aging parent seems happy at a 3 pain level, you probably don’t want to medicate them to sedation just to bring them down to a 0 zero level of pain. That being said, someone else may tolerate pain levels above 4 or 5, which can reduce the quality of life and should be addressed.

Location of Pain

You may find that the pain location is the same each time you ask your loved one. Let’s say your loved one has end-stage liver disease. They may repeatedly say they have pain in the upper right-hand side of the abdomen. You may feel like it’s a repetitive question and answer every time, but it’s vital that you keep asking every time, as new pain may develop at any time in any other place.

Non-Verbal Signs

If your loved one cannot verbalize their pain level or isn’t able to point to a FACES scale to indicate the level of pain, be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms:

  • Facial grimaces/frowns
  • Writhing or constantly shifting while in bed
  • Moaning, whimpering, or groaning
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Appearing tense and uneasy, drawing legs up or kicking
  • Guarding a particular area of pain, or withdrawing from touch to the affected area

The more symptoms your loved one has, and the higher intensity in which they feel them, the more you can understand their level and degree of pain. Then, you are better able to record that pain as “mild,” “moderate” or “severe.”

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

Our hospice care team is constantly assessing our patients’ level of pain so we can keep them comfortable. But we do rely on family members to clue us in on pain levels felt when our team cannot be there. We work side by side with the family to ensure pain management is a high priority for your loved one. To learn more, contact us at 888-978-1306.