Treating Pain in the Elderly

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on February 26, 2024
2 min read

Safe pain treatment is available for older adults. While they are more likely to experience pain than the general population, in many cases, older adults are under-treated. Many older adults feel pain is just a natural part of aging and don't tell their doctors about their problem. If you or someone you love is in pain, talk to a doctor.

Although there are a number of pain relievers that are safe for older people, doctors must take special precautions when prescribing pain medication; older patients handle pain medication differently than younger patients. For example, because kidney function declines with age, there can be less effective filtration (removal of the drug). The kidney can also be more susceptible to injury from certain types of pain medications (e.g. NSAIDs). In addition, the liver undergoes a decrease in mass and blood flow with aging, making it harder for the liver to break down some medications. The way drugs are administered to older people also can become a challenge. Decreased saliva may interfere with swallowing, and injections may be more difficult in decreased muscle mass. Also, oral drugs may be absorbed differently because of changes in stomach acid levels.

To overcome these challenges, doctors often start their older patients on the lowest recommended dose and then increase the amount of medication if necessary.

If you are an older person experiencing pain, keep in mind that you run a higher-than-average risk of side effects from all drugs, including analgesics like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs also are not recommended for people with kidney, liver, or heart issues and definitely should not be taken without first discussing it with your doctor. 

There is also a risk that any medications may interact with those that you are already on. But having chronic medical problems and an increased risk of side effects does not mean that your pain cannot, or should not, be aggressively treated. You may be a candidate for any of the pain-relieving therapies available. But talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications. You may need to take a lower dose than recommended on the label.