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Helping an Older Person Relieve Aches and Pains

It’s hard seeing someone you care for in pain. It can feel good when you help ease some of it. Because treating pain in older adults can be complex, talk to a doctor about it first.

Here are six things to do as you help relieve his aches and pains at home:

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Find Out if the Person Is in Pain

Some older people hold back from talking about pain. Or they may have trouble expressing it if they have dementia or have had a stroke. But if pain isn't treated, a senior may have trouble with daily activities, lose independence, and become depressed.  

Ask the person you're caring for if he is in pain. Signs include: 

  • Crying or moaning
  • Stiffness, clenched fists, knitted eyebrows
  • Poor appetite
  • Groaning when moved

If the person is unable to tell you if they’re in pain, you may need to have a doctor or therapist do an exam, including a check for bedsores.

Soothe With Heat

A warm shower or bath, hot water bottle, or warm cloth can help relax muscles and ease muscle spasms. A heating pad with an automatic off switch is a better option than a regular heating pad, which can burn skin if left on too long. Be careful with microwavable heating pads, these can have hotspots that burn. Apply heat to the sore area 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours. A paraffin wax bath can also soothe sore joints.

Cold Therapy

Cold can soothe pain, especially on an area that is inflamed or swelling. Try a cool cloth, cold pack, cold compression wrap, or ice massage. To make an ice pack, put crushed ice in a plastic bag and cover it with a towel. Check with a doctor about how long to apply cold.

Deep Breathing

Slow, quiet breathing helps relax the body and mind and ease pain. Try showing him how to do it first: Lie or sit with one hand on your belly and take a deep, slow breath. Imagine filling a balloon in your belly with air. Then breathe out, as if you're letting all the air out of the balloon. Imagine breathing out all tension or thoughts that keep you from relaxing. Aim for only about six long, deep breaths a minute. You can find other relaxation methods online or in audiotapes or books.

If he has lung problems, talk to his doctor about the best breathing exercises for him.

Massage

Massage a painful area -- or just give a foot, back, or hand rub. With your whole hand, the heel of your hand, or your fingertips, apply pressure in slow, steady, circular movements. Warm oil or lotion may help. Massage in one area for 10 seconds first to see if it feels good. He may like a light stroke or a firm one, but it shouldn't cause pain.

Medication

Ask his doctor what non-prescription painkillers are safe to use, if needed. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is probably the safest for mild to moderate pain. But don't use more than  your doctor recommends, because it can cause liver damage and other side effects. And check to make sure the person is not taking other drugs that have acetaminophen as an ingredient. This is a common problem.

If he has chronic, long-term pain, he might need over-the-counter as well as prescription drugs, including daily, extended-release pain medications and a plan for pain flare-ups.

It’s important to write down all of this so you can adjust medicines and fine-tune pain management when he sees his doctor.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on April 28, 2014

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